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How to Stop the Infighting and Actually Conduct a Creative Ideation Session

Brainstorming is required before solving any problem. But to do it right, try instituting these very specific exercises.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Your team is sitting around a conference table. They’re all staring at each other with a hint of angst in the air. The two most aggressive people in the group are speaking loudly and fighting for what they perceive is the right idea. An hour goes by with no progress. It ends with half-baked ideas sent over to the client and an uneasy feeling all around.

Ideation sessions like these are meant to convert the creativity energy of a brainstorm into actionable output. Participants walk away from ideation sessions with breakthrough ideas and executions. Most importantly, ideation sessions value and welcome a high quantity of ideas before selecting one quality idea.

There are several reasons why ideation sessions can go awry. Ideation sessions with undefined objectives and poor structure cause your team to be utterly lost. Placing too much pressure on the top creatives can kill all possibilities for others to speak freely.

As an innovation and creative firm, we at Use All Five lean on ideation sessions and workshops to create breakthrough ideas. And yet through trial and error, we learned how ideation sessions must strike a balance between free-form creativity and structure.

Ideation sessions must strike a balance between free-form creativity and structure.

To solve for the aforementioned creative disasters, moderators must model ideation sessions like a story with a strong narrative arc: a beginning, middle, and ending.

We open with divergent thinking, explore with emergent exercises, and conclude with convergent decision making. The most creative and productive ideation sessions open people’s minds, look for patterns, and end focusing on promising ideas for execution.

To optimize your team’s creativity, follow some of our tried and true ideation exercises below in order of divergent, emergent, and convergent phases:

  • The divergent phase explores a high quantity of ideas, open to any and every suggestion.
  • The emergent phase explores trends among the promising ideas from the divergent phase, often testing and flushing out original thoughts.
  • And lastly, the convergent phase hones in on the most promising idea.

Before you start, be sure to frame the problem as best as possible in order to formulate the best ideas.   

Divergent Exercises

These are exercises that generate many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time. The goal is quantity, not always quality.

Iconic Thinking [45 minutes]

In this exercise, you choose to be CEOs and/or pop culture figures. (Think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Lady Gaga.) Imagine each of these figures were the CEO of the client’s company. For each “CEO” write down his or her three strategic pillars that define how each individual attacks problems. Then for 30 minutes imagine how that person would solve the problem statement for the company. For the last few minutes, share all ideas with the group.

Think, Pair, Share [20 minutes]

Simple but effective, this exercise rapidly generates ideas. Given the problem statement, prompt the participants to think silently about different approaches or solutions to the challenge for five minutes. After the participants have written down all their ideas, pair up participants to share and discuss their solutions. This might lead the pairs to combine and improve ideas. The pairs then share two or three of their strongest ideas with the entire group, explaining their thought processes and what they learned.

Emergent Exercises

These exercises allow your team to explore emerging patterns and hone in on ideas that excite. The goal is to unleash surprises.

Affinity Map [45 minutes]

An affinity map buckets all of the ideas from the divergent phase and starts to make sense of it all. With all of the ideas on Post-its on a board for everyone to see, begin to cluster the ideas based on relationships. Also create a Post-it “parking lot” for ideas that do not seem to fall into place. Once all the notes have been sorted, create categories and unique names for each grouping. Discuss what differentiates the categories and begin to identify the strengths of each category. The strengths will indicate the different directions each category will take.

R.E.A.M.  [1 hour]

This exercise improves and flushes out potential ideas. Select two or three ideas the group would like to explore further. Assign groups to focus on one idea each. Ask each group to use the R.E.A.M. framework to improve the idea with four different approaches:

  • Rearrange/Replace.  Is there anything I can reverse, turn inside out, or do in a different order?
  • Eliminate. What can I eliminate?
  • Adapt. Can I adapt or combine something else with the idea by borrowing from other industries or mediums?
  • Magnify/Minimize. What can I magnify or minimize about the idea?

Groups will tackle each letter one by one to improve the idea. Groups will then share how the idea progressed. (Hint: if it’s easy to generate iterations of the original idea, it’s probably a strong direction.) The group then shares and discusses which promising ideas developed based on the improvements.

Convergent Exercises

These exercises focus on creating a single, well-established answer to the problem.  The goal is to land happily on a few ideas in order to present to your client or possibly execute. 

Make It Happen [30 minutes]

The moderator posts all of the ideas that survived from the emergent phase on a board for everyone to clearly see. One by one, take each idea and brainstorm as many executions of each idea as possible. Imagine what kind of actions would need to take place in order to bring the idea to life. 

Discuss and examine which ideas amassed the highest number of possible executions. Eliminate ideas without clear, actionable paths for implementation.  As a group, democratically vote or pick the final idea to move forward with.

Promising ideas must tell a compelling story. Structuring ideation sessions along a narrative arc sets the foundation for innovative products and services to win the hearts and minds of many, without destroying your team.

How about you?

How do you maximize creativity in your ideation sessions?

Comments (9)
  • gibby2020

    I enjoyed this description. I look forward to using this approach to our creative planning

  • Soon Min

    Thanks for your tips! Brainstorming is such a tricky area. To highlight as aspect you mentioned above, having a defined moderator or leader is often times the most basic thing that’s missing. This tends to result in either no one willing to bother to take up the role, or the opposite, where you described the ‘war of opinions’.

    Another method i use is to bring the ‘problem definition’ into the brainstorm. As a moderator, i would have a few articulations of the problem, but by having the group settle on the one that generates excitement allows for a more vibrant and smoother session.

  • Ashley Pajak

    I have noticed that starting with convergent ideas tend to be of a more small business plan. They think of an idea and run with it not really exploring all that much but just listening to the leader. But when it doesn’t work they are left scrambling. But I find starting with Divergent thinking is usually only done in businesses with time and money to spare. It can be hard to make sure to start at the beginning without spending to much time on it.

  • Juliel

    Hi Levi…these are FANTASTIC ideas!!! I’m going to try them this week 😉 Thank you!

  • Paul van Eeghen

    Great ideas and a small addition I can add to this is that it is important that the leader of the pack (the one who prepares the session) should not be the product owner or be as little involved in the product as possible. And it is important to finish all stages and not skip any even though people see it as useless or not adding any value (as it actually does)

  • Melissa Wadsworth

    Great ideas that remind me of the format I learned in an architectural design class in collage. The three parts also remind me of the Imagineers process. Love the new twists of stepping into the “brain” of a CEO, too.

  • Pete

    REAM… sounds painful…

  • Robin Mendelson

    The creative meetings at one of the design firms I worked at would get completely out-of-control sometimes!!! So we instituted a signal – a forward “V” shaped motion with your hands – we used when either the speaker, or the whole room, needed to…focus!!! It worked great; it was a silent, non-critical way to let someone know they are orbiting outside the realm of possibilities.

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