3 Steps to a Better Brainstorm

Today’s blog post is written by Rachel Hands, Director of Client Services, PatronManager.

Picture it, arts leaders: you’re planning a staff meeting for the beginning of your fiscal year. Your season is set, you’re excited about it, and you want to come up with some new and engaging ways to help your patrons connect with the work you’ve chosen! You know your team is made up of thoughtful, creative people who are committed to that same goal — you’ve done your job well in hiring and mentoring — and you want to take advantage of that, so you’re pretty sure that a brainstorming session is in order. It’ll help you learn what’s top-of-mind for the folks who are the most deeply invested in your organization — chances are, they’ve been thinking about this already, and have some fresh ideas ready to share. 

There’s just one thing that’s giving you pause before sending that calendar invite: you’ve seen brainstorming meetings go a bit off the rails, so you want to make sure this one goes as productively as possible. I know that pause all too well. For a long time, I’ve avoided brainstorming meetings because I feel safest when there’s order and process, when I can be sure everything has been accounted for and is practical, and every idea I express is complete and thought all the way through. Brainstorming sessions aren’t like that. They often feel vulnerable, incomplete, and messy. But wait: process nerds of the world, should we tell our secret?

We love a mess. That is, we love a mess that we can turn into useful order. And brainstorming meetings are just that, or they can be if you approach them from a mindset that isn’t apprehensive. Remember, the point of brainstorming is to identify what’s at the top of everyone’s mind. It’s not, as I have often assumed, to craft the finished product. With the aid of some suggestions from the Harvard Business Review, I’m now approaching these meetings as the middle part of a three-step process (look, I like a process, okay?):

  • Prepare. As often as possible, give participants a day’s advance notice before a brainstorming session. Let them know what your main question is, or identify what problem you want to solve. Make sure participants know that there will be some sort of follow-up after the meeting, so it’s okay if they don’t have all their background data together yet. In our example, make sure your team knows what the repertoire is for your upcoming season — don’t assume they’ve read the same memos you have.
  • Meet. Use the time you have together to identify the things that feel most immediate to the people in the room. This is not the whole picture, and that’s okay! What you’re producing in this step is the edges of the puzzle. You’ll fill in the middle later. (Some of those pieces might be to a whole other puzzle. That’s fine.)
  • Evaluate. Now is the time to let your process pals really shine (or to take the spotlight if that’s you). You and your team have defined a broad set of ideas that could help answer your question or move toward a solution to your problem. Now you get to fill in the middle of the puzzle. Which pieces do you set aside for another time? Are there key pieces of this puzzle missing? What would it take to put together the hardest part right away (implement the most audacious idea you came up with)?

It’s not a bad idea to involve others in the “evaluate” step. You’re trying to fill gaps, after all. Seek out input from the folks who were quietest in the meeting — they might have some of the pieces you’re missing, and they just might love a mess they can help get under control. Why not let them?

I still have to work up the motivation to schedule a brainstorming session myself, but knowing that I’ve got a process to tidy things up afterward helps give me the push I need to have more productive meetings and gather input that feels most important to my team.

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