How to Facilitate Ideation Using the Brainstorming Tool


Encouraging and developing ideas is the easiest of the three activities required to operate the tool called “Brainstorming.” The other two activities include analysis and convergence (or, decision). Whether you use an easel or a spreadsheet, Post-it® notes or illustrated drawings, the first principle of brainstorming, as it was intended by Alex Osborne, is to encourage capturing lots of ideas without constraint or judgment. Most neophyte facilitators become the first person in the meeting to violate this principle by asking for definition or further explanation, such as “Tell us more about _____.”

Regardless of HOW you gather ideas, embrace the first principle we call “Ideation.” This first step of brainstorming can be reinforced with a discrete set of ground rules such as:

  • No discussion
  • Fast pacing, high-energy
  • All ideas allowed
  • Be creative—experiment
  • Build on the ideas of others
  • Suspend judgment, evaluation, and criticism
  • Passion is good
  • Accept the views of others
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • Everyone participates
  • No word-smithing
  • When in doubt, leave it in
  • The ideation step is informal
  • 5-Minute Limit Rule (ie, ELMO doll — Enough, Let’s Move On)

In our experience, having used all of these rules at one time or another, only the first four (shown in bold font) consistently add value. For example, a few of the ideation rules suggest that someone has made a remark (eg, No word-smithing). If the facilitator carefully polices the very first ground rule (ie, No discussion), then it obviates the need for some of the other ground rules.

The ELMO rule is also not necessary if the activity is closely policed. How long can a group maintain “high-energy”? If the group is working with high-energy at the five-minute mark, do you really want to shut them down? It is likely that energy will begin to die down in the next few minutes anyway, so if closely monitored, the formal rule is not necessary, although typically the facilitator should expect to wind down the ideation activity within six to eight minutes anyway. Larger groups may keep up high-energy for ten to twelve minutes, but it is most unlikely that any group will maintain true “high-energy” for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Once the ideation activity is complete, the real work begins. What are you going to do with the list? The first challenge is normally about definition and what something specifically means. How to effectively facilitate a consensually understood definition, is covered in the next blog.

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).


How to Facilitate Brainstorming

The term “brainstorming” is technically a gerund, a verb that wants to be a noun.  When done properly, brainstorming can be highly effective.  When done poorly, it leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. Most consider optimal brainstorming to include three discrete activities:

  1. List (also known as diverge or ideate)
  2. Analyze (the hardest of the three activities and the one frequently omitted)
  3. Decide (also known as converge or document)

A facilitator or session leader must be conscious where the group is and upon which activity the group should focus.  Many people are confident in their facilitation skills because they can stand at an easel and capture ideas (or provide instructions and gather Post-it Notes®).  Those same leaders then turn to their participants and ask them to create categories, or worse, ask what they would like to do with the list.  This type of leadership is NOT facilitation and does NOT make it easier for the group to make an informed decision.

The difficult part of brainstorming, and frequently facilitating, is knowing what to do with the list—how to lead the group through analysis that is insightful.  There is no “silver bullet” for the ill prepared.  The appropriate analysis should be determined in advance, with an alternative method in mind as a contingency or back-up plan. Many of the other blogs are about HOW TO analyze input.

For example, there are numerous ways to help groups prioritize, from the simple through the complicated to the complex.  Purchasing stationary may be simple, while designing machinery (eg, jet aeroplane) is complicated, and creating artificial intelligence (think IBM’s Watson playing Jeopardy) is truly complex. Each has a different and appropriate method for analysis and prioritization. For example, we rely on the PowerBalls to for the simple analysis, the Scorecard tool for complicated analysis, and our quantitative SWOT framework for the truly complex.

One might use PowerBalls for a simple decision.  To drive consensus around a complicated decision, something more robust is required such as a quantitative Scorecard approach that separates criteria into different types such as binary (ie, Yes/ No), scalable (more is better), and fuzzy (subjective).  Alternatively, qualitative Perceptual Maps may suit some groups better.  For the complex, a hardy and robust tool is required such as MG Rush’s quantitative SWOT analysis.

Subsequent blog posts provide insight about HOW TO lead high quality sessions that use Brainstorming as a tool for groups to gather, analyze, and decide.  Please post any questions you have or challenges that you may have encountered.  We will post a response based on our body of knowledge (BoK) supported by decades of experience leading groups to make higher quality decisions.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify the skills of a facilitative leader.

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How to (Not) Gesture while Facilitating

Nonverbal expressions, like words (see Facilitate Meaning, Not Words), connote multiple messages. After you finish this article, you will be strongly tempted to embrace the FAST recommendation—ie; keep your elbows tucked in, your hands below your heart, and keep them open, facing up. Some would call this approach, keeping your hands to yourself.

For example, extending the index and little fingers upward, with a fist shaped as a “V” (with the middle and ring fingers tucked down into the palm, along with the thumb) can signify victory or good luck in the Americas while it is considered a vulgar insult in Italy.

A single thumb up, commonly used to express “all right” in the United States, counts as the number one in Germany, the number five in Japan, and is seen as a vulgar insult in Afghanistan, among other places (akin to the middle finger prone upward in the United States).

Scuba divers universally acknowledge the clasping of the thumb and index finger into a circle (or, “AOK”) as the buddy signal that all is fine. The same signal may be seen as a vulgar insult in Brazil, Russia, and Italy while it signifies to “pay me” in Japan and displays a sense of “worthless” in France.

Even a simple nod of the head from side to side typically signifies “no” or “I’m not in agreement” in the United States, may signify “yes” or “no problem” in India and elsewhere. The slight vertical nod of the head up and down signifies “yes” or “I’m OK with it” in the United States, but it may signify “no” or “I don’t see it” in Greece and elsewhere.

While nonverbal cues are intended to simplify understanding, it is rather apparent that they can obfuscate consensus in a multi-cultural setting. As with everything, context is critical to understanding, and the role of the facilitator is to police context on behalf of the participants—so be careful, and keep your hands to yourself.

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MGRush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

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Facilitate Meaning, Not Words

One of the toughest tasks of a facilitator is to relinquish judgement, to fully seek the meaning behind the terms used by meeting participants. Since structured workshops frequently support the information revolution (as opposed to the 20thcentury industrial revolution), remind participants that their words are but instruments behind the meaning being conveyed.

Facilitate Meaning, Not Words

The term ‘in-formation’ implies a sense of journey, rather than destination. Participants supporting in-formation technology discover that deliverables are transitory. The question is not whether a guiding principle or assumption will change, only when it  changes—or perhaps more accurately, how quickly the change will occur, since change is continuous.

Be willing to challenge participants to make their thinking visible. Great minds like a think. Strive to help your speaker or participants to more fully explain the meaning behind the terms they use. Words will rarely capture all of the intended meaning, but additional challenge and facilitation can help improve robust understanding, making it easier to build valid and sustaining consensus.

Whether you are most familiar with the “Five WHYs” or the inquisitive five-year old, ask for proof, evidence, examples, and options to fortify participants’ thinking and their supporting arguments. Be especially prepared to challenge adjectives and adverbs, such as ‘quick’ or ‘quality’. Ask about their meaning and intent.  An excellent follow-up question is “How do you measure ____insert adjective or adverb______?”

English is but one of many languages that can be used to build consensus. True and valid consensus is not only an English term(s), rather it is also the meaning the participants intends to convey. The elusive nature of meaning was captured by Hafez (aka Hafiz) when he penned centuries ago:

If you think that the Truth an be known

From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening called the mouth.

O someone should start laughing!

Someone should start wildly laughing—


Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MGRush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).


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