Attack of the Post It Notes


In the world of advertising we love a brainstorm (ideation session/workshop/ “bespoke agency name for it”).  There seems to be this deeply held belief that if you want to be really creative and come up with original ideas, the best way to do it is to shut a group of people away in a room with sharpies, flip charts, power dots and large brightly coloured post-it notes. In fact, for many, there is the sense that a decent array of stationery is all a good brainstorm needs.

Some agencies also have a nice template for you to fill out, to “structure the thinking.” They’re usually the same places that don’t call brainstorms “brainstorms” but have a unique internal name for them, designed to sound clever and innovative when they talk to clients about their planning process.

I have more respect for these templated sessions, with their obligatory clever sounding name, than I do a session that relies purely on the power of group thinking and post-it notes to get to a meaningful outcome.  If the person who created the template is still at the company, and actively involved in training up their colleagues on facilitating these sessions, they have the potential to be useful (assuming they know what they’re doing, of course).  Particularly if there is the flexibility within the model to allow people to adapt the session to deliver against their specific objectives (a good template should inspire more than it prescribes).

What I hate is the multi-person waste of time of a “right, here’s the brief, throw out some clever ideas” brainstorm.  With no thought given to how creative thinking might be stimulated as a group. Throw in the utter bollocks of “there is no such thing as a bad idea” and your workshop is a slow motion car crash, eating up the time of people who are already working crazy hours. I don’t care how many sweets you provide, a sugar rush is no substitute for planning. The creation of a good brainstorm takes at least as long (realistically longer) than the session itself. Not the 5 minutes many set aside to simplify a brief & email it out to the group as pre-reading materials (if you’re lucky) and a trip to the stationery cupboard.

As someone who has attended, planned and facilitated many workshops in my time I’ve learned a lot along the way about what makes a good session (my focus today is on internal brainstorms, running sessions for clients is a much more involved and political beast).  Just in case this might be useful to others, here are a few pointers on things you should be doing (yes some of them are really obvious but you’d be amazed how often they’re skipped):

(1) Make sure you’ve got the right people in the room. If you need certain disciplines represented and your first choice can’t make it, ask them to suggest a replacement.

(2) Ensure that everyone attending is committed to the full time. It can be more disruptive than useful to have someone you think is key to the session turn up late.  If they are that important, move the session to fit with their availability.

(3) Have a clear facilitator of the session, not just a fellow participant that tells everyone what to do. They need to be free to walk round the different break out groups. They can’t do that if they’re in one.

(4) Be very clear on what success would look like. What is your objective?  What output do you need from the session? That is your planning start point.

(5) Now design your journey to get to that objective, bearing in mind that it should not be as blunt as “this is what I need, shout out ideas please”. Think about the starting point of the least knowledgeable person in that room, and work from there. What journey do you need to take them on to help you get to your destination? Can this be done in one session (good to be realistic)? If yes, great crack on…

(6) Start of the session should be ensuring everyone is clear on (a) what they need to do and (b) all information they need to do it (some of this may, and probably should, have been provided as a pre-read. Also be realistic on how much they really need to know, avoid the urge to overload them).  To make sure they walk into that room with their head in the right space, you may have given them a short pre-session exercise to complete and share as part of the kick off.

(7) To progress from knowledge to thinking – be clear on how you are going to use the different group dynamics. You’ll get very different things out of people working in pairs, vs lots of individuals shouting out ideas as part of a large group. If, in the 2nd stage of your session, you want people to really drill in to the opportunity/challenge they are trying to address (vs mindlessly sharing ideas) I’d recommend splitting them into small groups (2-4 people).  Save big group sharing for the more ideation heavy elements that tend to come at the end of brainstorm once everyone is warmed up and brimming with ideas.

(8) Be very clear on whether you’re brainstorming out of a central challenge OR opportunity. There are different schools of thought on whether you get the best ideas out of trying to fix something vs celebrating something. I tend to skew negative (plan out of a challenge) but have been known to mix it up. If you don’t have a core challenge/opportunity already, part of your brainstorm session will need to be set aside to identify one. Make sure you allow plenty of time for this. Ideating out of a strong single-minded challenge/opportunity will be quicker and more productive than coming up with lots of quirky ideas with no substance behind them.  It is worth prioritising this in terms of your session timings.

(9) Allow people to challenge suggestions. Blindly accepting everything shared in a brainstorm as a good idea is counterproductive and often cringe-worthy.  Instead make it clear that any challenges need to be substantiated. In illustrating why an idea wouldn’t work, someone may help the group find a viable alternative. Destruction for the sake of it (e.g “no I don’t like that” idea) remains a no-no, but challenging in order to build on more solid ground, that should be encouraged.

(10) Plan for the energy in the room. Mix things up so you don’t have people doing the same thing for ages. Repetition leads to lazy thinking and wandering minds. Keep people on their toes both metaphorically and literally (movement is important, particularly if you’re running a long session).  Change the groups, use different exercises for different parts of the journey. As a workshop designer and facilitator, you should not be afraid to look stupid when asking people to do things that feel a bit daft. Unsettling people and getting them to laugh are powerful tools, particularly when you’re asking your participants to be highly attentive over a long period of time.

(11) Have very clear timings and stick to them. There may be elements in your workshop plan that you may need to drop if a more critical element is over running. Be very clear on the absolute “must haves” that you need to get out of the session to achieve your objective and be ready to be flexible around the “nice to haves”. A good facilitator mustn’t be afraid to tell someone (even if they might be their boss outside of the room) to hurry up or focus. If you don’t have the confidence to do this, fake it until you do. It is surprisingly liberating.

(12) Give yourself space. Is the room you have available big enough? Do you need break out spaces? Do you even need to get everyone out of the office and hire a space down the road, to keep people focused?  Locking people in a too small room to sweat out ideas for hours is not conducive to good ideas or relationships.

My list could go on but hopefully the above selected pointers are useful. The key thing to bear in mind is that a brainstorm, like any meeting you attend, should have a clear objective. If you don’t have a plan for achieving that objective (or even worse don’t have an understanding of what that objective is) the odds of you achieving it are slim.  While an individual can be spontaneous and creative, that approach rarely works for groups.

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