There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about the ineffectiveness of traditional brainstorming. Can it be saved? Check out one method our project managers are using to improve team collaboration and make sure great ideas rise to the surface.

It’s no easy task for teams to come up with creative ways to solve problems. Yet so many of us seem to run collaborative sessions in a very standard way—as if we took a course once upon a time called Brainstorming 101. We fall into accordance with an unspoken set of rules about the way meetings should be conducted, how people should behave, and how to participate. Few of us take the time to ask why we follow these rules, and, more importantly, if following them really produces the desired results.

The problem with many of these unspoken rules is that they tend to enforce structure instead of enabling goals to be met. There’s also been a fair amount of talk lately about the ineffectiveness of traditional brainstorming sessions. (A simple internet search on “effectiveness of brainstorming” turns up a handful of reputable articles on the downfalls.) Plus, because the end-goals are often ill-defined, they frequently leave the participants feeling like they could have made better use of their time. We all know that feeling. And none of us like it.

A better way to brainstorm

Fortunately, there are constructive ways to change these unspoken rules. One set of simple microstructures is called Liberating Structures. They can help define the expectations and outcomes of group interaction rather than assuming everyone knows already.

Each Liberating Structure consists of five pieces:

  1. Clear and specific invitation or a request to participate via sharing knowledge or asking for advice from the group
  2. Participation of those who have accepted the invitation to contribute to the group
  3. Configuration of the participants into single groups or subgroups
  4. Space needed in size and physical layout
  5. Timing of each step in the structure

At first glance, this may not look terribly different from a traditional meeting—but it’s all in the execution. Let’s compare how a brainstorming session might run using a traditional meeting structure versus a Liberating Structure.

Traditional Brainstorming session vs. Liberating Structures

In a traditional brainstorming session scenario, typically a date, time, and topic for the brainstorming session is set, and people gather to throw out ideas. Someone takes notes. And only the loudest and most assertive personalities tend to participate fully. At the end, the team may or may not take time to rank the ideas and decide a path forward.

In a Liberating Structures scenario, brainstorming is seen more like crowd sourcing—a slight shift, which takes the emphasis off of a collective “group think” approach. Instead it is seen as pulling ideas from everyone. Then we shift, sort, combine them for the most creative solution, and develop first steps—all in fast cycles.

In the Crowd Sourcing structure, a topic and time are set, and the invitation becomes “If you were 10 times bolder, what big idea would you recommend for this topic? And what first step would you take to get started?” Participants take time to write their answers on a card on their own. All cards are then put on a table, discussed, and ranked.

Why does this work? It levels the playing field between personalities and communication styles. It allows people to think on their own without interruption. And it gives the opportunity for good ideas to bubble up as all ideas are addressed and ranked using an organized process.

What is your favorite process for brainstorming? Have you tried new tools and techniques? What have you found? Let us know in the comments.

Shawn Henning is a Senior QA Engineer at Deloitte Digital, Deloitte Consulting LLP, with an interest in empowering individuals and teams to accomplish great things. He believes in the spirit of The Agile Manifesto and the magic of Liberating Structures.

Liberating Structures is an open community for people interested in learning more effective facilitation and team management techniques. They provide tools and techniques for managing a variety of meetings.