The Secret to Great Brainstorming


Brainstorming is one of the most effective methods of engaging employees in generating new ideas and solving tough problems. If done right, it is a fast-paced, interactive session where new ideas are generated. As a leader, the challenge is facilitating the discussion to ensure the absolute best ideas are surfaced.

Aaron Aders, co-founder and CSO of DigitalRelevance, suggests six steps to leading a productive brainstorming session. These include:

  1. Always go offsite
  2. Solidify your central focus
  3. Whiteboard your ideas in a Mind Map
  4. Create ideas, not plans
  5. Shut down “Blockers” and “Divers”
  6. Schedule the next steps

While this is an excellent list, I think Aaron is missing out on the most important thing you must do as a leader. It is critical that you engage the quietest person in the room. After 25 years of leading sessions like this, I’ve found the best ideas have almost always come from this person.

Aaron mentions two personality types you will encounter in brainstorming sessions, Blocker and Divers. A Blocker is someone who quickly shuts down ideas by deeming them impossible to implement. A Diver is just the opposite. This person will take up the session time by diving deep into developing the idea further. Both can derail a brainstorming session if not dealt with.

I would suggest there is another personality type you need to look out for, Dominators. These are the people who will dominate the conversation with their ideas and their opinions. If left unchecked, Dominators can take up all your session time and possibly lead you to miss out on other important ideas.

In the session, it will become clear who are your Blockers, Divers, and Dominators. It will also be clear who the quietest person in the room is. It is important that you engage that person to get their thoughts. You will almost always be surprised at the insight they bring. There are 5 reasons why I believe these people have the most interesting ideas:

1. They let others fire the first shot. Don’t let their silence fool you. They have strong opinions but they are waiting to see some of the other ideas first. This lets them contrast their thoughts with the opinions of others.

2. They are listening. Their silence means they are listening to all the other compelling ideas. This allows them to better refine their own thoughts.

3. They are thinking deeply about the problem. Henry Louis Mencken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” The challenge is that complex problems require deep thinking and the quiet person is thinking while others are talking.

4. They are considering a combined solution. Often, in these sessions, there are two or three big ideas that are being discussed and debated. I have learned that quiet members of the team are listening to the discussion and are considering an alternative idea that combines the best of several ideas.

5. They are waiting to see the debate reach some level of consensus. I’ve noticed these people usually don’t get into the early debate and discussion of ideas. They are more likely to sit back, listen to the discussion, and wait until a consensus is reached. It is important to engage them at this point. Often times, especially when they don’t agree with the consensus opinion, their insight provides the necessary spark to move the discussion forward to find an optimum solution.

Brainstorming sessions are an important leadership tool to gain employee buy-in and to gather a diverse set of insights, opinions, and ideas. If done correctly, it will provide both a powerful learning session as well as a consensus opinion on the important next steps for your organization. As you lead these sessions, it is important to understand the personality types you will encounter to ensure they don’t dominate the discussion. It is also critical to engage the quietest person in the room. You will almost always be surprised at the important revelations and critical insight they bring.

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