1. Start with the problem(s), not the solution(s). When you gather a team for times of ideation, don’t bring solutions to the table, bring problems. This can be difficult for us leaders because we often think meetings are more efficient if we just brainstorm previously suggested solutions. However, brainstorming the problems is where the real action happens. Plus, your team will be that much closer because you landed somewhere together.
2. Listen for laughter. If it’s not there, something is wrong. Team meetings—especially ones scheduled for creative thinking—should include lots of laughter. Without laughter, no one will feel comfortable presenting crazy ideas. And it’s with those crazy ideas that things really start to take shape.
3. Let vision lead, not dollar signs. I try never to start an ideation meeting telling people how much the budget is. It seems to always dampen the conversation when people feel that they have limits. I’d rather an idea that costs $1 million yet inspires everyone than a bunch of $100 ideas that are boring. This doesn’t mean you keep the budget hidden, but be careful to bring it out at the right time.
4. Invite people you don’t like. The usher that annoys you. The neighbor that plays her music too loud. The nursery volunteer who uses words such as blessed and precious in every other sentence. Invite them. They have a different way of looking at life (obviously!), and their perspective might be just the element needed to get everyone thinking big.5. Invite people with unusual professions. Along the lines of inviting people you don’t like, try to invite people who are from completely different fields or professions. The opera singer. The coal miner. The lawyer. Invite several people with a wide variety of backgrounds. You’ll be surprised what kind of stuff these people think of.
6. Always change the size. I usually keep ideation teams to no more than five to seven people. The bigger the group the more difficult it is to get anything done. When you have more people in a group, each person feels less of a responsibility to contribute. Conversely, when you have fewer people in a group, everyone feels more inclined to weigh in.
7. Use the ranking system for brainstorm sessions. Write on a whiteboard any words or phrases that the team brainstorms for a specific problem. You may have 20, 30, perhaps 50 different things. No idea is bad; everything goes up there. Then close the brainstorming session and, revisiting each word or phrase, have everyone vote for which ones should stay up there. Put the number of votes next to each word or phrase. Then erase all of the lines except the ones that are in the top 15 to 20 percent of the votes. Go through the process once or twice more, depending on how many ideas and people you have. Once you get it narrowed down to two or three ideas, now you have something to work with—and everyone helped to get there.
8. Meet in different places. Don’t always meet in the same place. Go outside. Go to the aisles in a grocery store, the middle of mall food court, on a paddle boat in a lake. There are tons of options, and getting the setting right is very important.
9. Schedule ideation at prime times. Don’t schedule ideation meetings for times when everyone is tired or drained. Do them first thing in the morning or late at night when everyone has their second wind. It all depends on the people coming, so be intentional about when you meet.