Many senior managers know the frustration that comes with unproductive or disruptive workshops that fail to generate new ideas or foster greater collaboration. Yet at organisations all across the world, the traditional brainstorming session is still the most common method of using groups to generate ideas. Transforming these workshops from dull, uninspiring time wasters into productive and inspiring experiences requires embedding 6 key steps into the process.

The traditional, if somewhat stereotypical, workshops in which the moderator urges participants to “be creative” and “think outside the box” are by and large unsuccessful as they lack the structure and preparation to properly support the process.

As a consequence, some attendees remain unresponsive throughout the session, others contribute intermittently, while the session is often commandeered by a handful of louder participants who are driven by their own agenda. The ideas themselves seem to pop up randomly, ranging from interesting to absurd, but there is no real collective buy-in and overall sense of cohesive participation.

That said, workshops can also be a vehicle for generating innovative ideas, building momentum and increasing stakeholders’ engagement in the strategic process. Our experience has helped us develop a practical approach[1] that captures the energy typically wasted in a traditional brainstorming session, steering it in a more productive direction. The solution is to leverage the way people actually think and work in creative problem-solving situations. While it requires more preparation than traditional brainstorming, the results are worthwhile. The key elements of the approach are as follows:

1. Framing the debate and agreeing “rules of engagement” – Preparation is a key first step, and managers should not underestimate its importance. To encourage creative thinking and channel it appropriately, managers need to understand the criteria the organisation will use when qualifying ideas and determining which ones to move forward on. The manager should have a clear idea of what an acceptable idea looks like and, in some cases, will have to exercise his/her own judgement and shape the qualification criteria. As a result, the sessions will be better aligned to what the organisation actually wants and will be much more productive.

2. Asking the right questions – The best way to provide good quality ideas (as opposed to good quantity) it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation. In practice, this means building the workshop around a series of “right questions” that the team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. The important element is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force the participants to adopt a new and unfamiliar perspective. The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space the team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.

3. Selecting the right people – Simply put, this involves choosing people who can answer the questions asked. This means bringing experts when required or being more selective on who should attend the workshop – workshop facilitators should engage and collaborate with relevant stakeholders on this.

4. Dividing and conquering – To ensure that discussions are productive, it is better to have attendees participate in several discrete, highly-focused brainstorming sessions. In these sessions, participants should be divided into subgroups of three to five people, as there is greater likelihood that each participant will be more vocal, whereas the opposite is true in larger groups. Each subgroup should focus on a single question for a full 30 minutes. There are two important considerations when we build the groups:

  1. It’s important to separate “idea crushers” into their own subgroup – these are the participants who (intentionally or not) obstruct others from offering good ideas but are otherwise suitable for the workshop.
  2. The manager’s presence, which often makes people hesitant to express unproven ideas, could be damaging if participants span multiple levels of the organisation.

5. Preparing the attendees and clarifying the expectations and rules – It is key to ensure that all participants are going to the meeting with a good understanding of the process will be and the expectations for the day. A useful exercise is to develop a short document that highlights the purpose, objectives, structure, rules of engagement, and the timings of the workshops.

6. Finally, wrapping up at the end of the workshop and working on follow-ups – The end of the session is about narrowing down the list of ideas or outputs by sub-group, following which each sub-group shares all their leading ideas with the full group to inspire and motivate the other attendees. The selection of the ideas or outputs will be done outside of the workshop by the senior management team. All sessions should be concluded with a summary detailing the key points and what was achieved during the session. The most effective workshop facilitators will bring closure or clarify next steps for each point, and end the session with a group evaluation – soliciting feedback from each participant on how they felt the session went.

[1] We adapted McKinsey & Company’s article Seven steps to better brainstorming in the development of our approach.