Brainstorms and workshops can be a highly impactful, quick way to align one or more groups of people in a short amount of time. However, I often hear people—non-designers and designers alike—speak negatively of these activities. I’ve heard folks say workshops are a waste of time, that they only serve to build the facilitator’s career, and other logical fallacies based on anecdotal evidence.
The issue is that many people either don’t know how or when to run workshops. Well-considered, well-facilitated workshops are not a waste of time. Poorly-planned activities that have no basis in the context of the organization or team’s needs will never be successful.
So how can we facilitate effective brainstorms? I’m going to share the five qualities of a successful brainstorm facilitator. These recommendations come from approximately 10 years of experience facilitating various workshops and classes, both in and outside my role as a designer.
If you’re organizing ad hoc group activities without defining the need, expected outcomes, and timeline, you’re starting off poorly. You don’t need to spend weeks preparing for a 1-hour sketching session. You do need to come with an explanation regarding why everyone has gathered—and what will happen after the session ends.
Spend time before the session putting together documentation that outlines the goals of your activity and who will be participating. Also include a lightweight run-of-show. This will serve as a reference during the session itself, and you can share these details with your participants in advance. Participants will be more committed to the work when they know you’ve put in effort.
Have you ever sat through a 30-minute presentation, only to realize it could have been an email? Your participants will feel the same way if you only share context during the brainstorm. Consider what can be shared asynchronously before you meet.
Your synchronous time should be used for live discussions and decision-making. I often share a compilation of customer research and link to videos participants can watch in advance of our workshops. And now that we have tools like Mural and FigJam, you can even share the brainstorm workspace in advance so people can have quiet time to share their ideas!
When sharing asynchronous materials, give participants at least 2 business days for review. Time yourself as you go through the materials. This will help you include an estimated amount of time required so participants can manage their schedules appropriately.
Watch the clock
During the actual workshop, use a timer to keep yourself and others on track. Products like FigJam now include timers for group activities so you can keep everyone aware of the time left for each activity. If you don’t have access to a timer within the brainstorming product, there are plenty of free options across the internet—or you can use your phone.
Time tracking is crucial because conversations can easily go off-track. I usually prepare a “parking lot” within my brainstorm activity for discussions like these. The parking lot is crucial for documenting meaty, tangential topics that must be handled at a later time. Participants usually feel comforted knowing their thoughts have been acknowledged and documented, even if they can’t immediately finish the conversation.
No brainstorm ever goes completely according to plan. If you are too rigid, participants may feel constrained. Allow some wiggle room. If participants need more time for a relevant conversation, make the space and reschedule the remainder of the activities for a later time. Flexibility is an important part of teamwork.
As a facilitator, you need to read the room and adapt appropriately. I change plans if a particular exercise doesn’t land the way I thought it would. Give participants the signal that feedback and skepticism are welcomed—their input will ultimately lead to a more fruitful conversation.
Ensure everyone speaks
One common mistake I see in facilitated group conversations is letting one or a few people speak too much. Keeping the discussion balanced takes observation and effort. As a facilitator, this is your duty. Document who speaks and when, then actively call on people who haven’t recently spoken.
When you ask a question, point to someone specific rather than lobbing the question in the middle of the group. Encourage the speaker to call on the next person. If you’re doing a brainstorm, give people quiet time to write down their ideas, then give participants equal time to share out their ideas.
Valuable ideas are missed when a small percentage of people dominate the conversation. Seniority often holds weight in groups. Active facilitation is the only way to maintain equity. The more participants know their thoughts matter, the more they will value the work you do together.
It’s easy to write off all brainstorming exercises after a bad experience. What’s much more challenging—and rewarding—is taking a nuanced, contextual stance. I encourage you to invest in your facilitation skills and explore the value group ideation can bring to you and your customers.
Liked this piece? Check out these resources to become a better facilitator:
In this panel, we will hear from Staff and Principal Designers who’ve managed to stay on the IC track while growing their careers. We’ll get into some of the day-to-day nitty-gritty of what it means to be a Staff Designer or Principal Designer, and how to make this role a reality within your organization.