From the June 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

A tried-and-true way to get your company fired up is to hold a brainstorming session. Surprisingly, most people don't know the rules that should govern these powwows. To make the most of your collective brainpower, there are certain steps you must take.

When done properly, brainstorming can yield an abundance of ideas that may not have otherwise surfaced. The process seems to work best when some basic rules are followed:

  • Have a well-defined problem or issue to address.
  • Have someone write down ideas as they surface.
  • Include the right number of people in your group.
  • Suspend judgment (criticism is forbidden until after the session).
  • Encourage people to build on the ideas of others. Combinations, links and improvements are desirable.
  • Invite far-out, unconventional ideas. Push the envelope. The wilder the idea, the better.
  • Go for quantity over quality.
  • Designate someone to be in charge of gently enforcing these guidelines.

Other critical guidelines you should follow include:

  • Size: Experts say the ideal size for a brainstorming session is from five to eight people. Fewer than five, and there won't be enough raw material generated; more than eight, and it's hard to keep everyone focused.
  • Environment: Where you hold your session can have a big impact on its outcome. Find a place where you won't be interrupted by phone calls or customers, and where there aren't piles of work lying around to remind everyone of other things that need to be done. This pretty much rules out your office. Besides, new surroundings can help encourage people to make creative connections. On the other hand, you don't want a place that's toostimulating. Participants need to keep their minds on the task at hand. Just make sure the place you hold your meeting is comfortable, quiet and spacious enough for large sheets of paper or a white board to be hung on a wall.
  • Facilitator: The facilitator of your session should take control right away, defining the problem to be solved and explaining the ground rules for the session and how long it will last. He or she should promote an enthusiastic, nonjudgmental attitude among the participants and encourage everyone to take part in the session. The facilitator should also ensure that no train of thought is followed for too long. In addition, a good facilitator encourages the group to generate ideas quickly; discourages idea-selling; restrains overly enthusiastic, inappropriate or dominant participants; and summarizes what took place when the session is over.
  • Mood: Brainstormers should have fun. Humor and a lighthearted mood increase creativity. The most productive sessions are those that tolerate wacky ideas and funny remarks. If you don't fancy yourself a comedian, at least encourage others to be freewheeling and lighthearted.

While not every situation lends itself to a brainstorming format, almost any business can benefit from occasionally stepping back and taking a new look at the old way of doing things. It brings people together, reminds them what the business's goals are, and just might generate an idea for building a better mousetrap.


Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and business etiquette. E-mail her at landerson@ctos.com