6 Ways To Prevent Your Next Brainstorming Session From Being A Horrible Waste Of Time

Research for a brainstorming session? Yes. Good ideas are worth their weight in gold. So let's get rich.

We all know that ideas are the currency of the modern economy. So whenever we’re in need of new ones, we dutifully round everyone up for some caffeine-fueled sessions with the white board.

Halsbrook, an online clothing retailer that targets the 40-ish, fashionable woman, is no different. Founder Halsey Schroeder says that at first, she tried the standard approach: "Let’s all come and have some general blue sky ideas of how to improve the company!"

But she soon realized that these discussions were "super unfocused," she says. "Open-ended doesn’t work." So Schroeder and her team tried a different approach to brainstorming that’s helped them grow 20% per month over the past year. Here’s what they do:

1. Designate a topic

Schroeder and crew choose a topic for each innovation meeting. An early one defined—in detail—who is the Halsbrook woman. Another focused on customer retention. Another looked at the user experience.

2. Require research

Everyone is supposed to come with two to three ideas that they’ve thought through. "It can’t be from the seat of your pants," Schroeder says. What other online retailers have tried what you’re proposing? How did it work for them?

3. Put teeth to that requirement

Halsbrook meetings start randomly. "We pick somebody to start and cold call on them," she says. If you never know when you’ll be presenting your ideas first, you’ll probably have them ready to go.

4. Don’t lose ideas to meeting dynamics

There are always people who don’t like speaking in groups, and there are always people who like to attack or inflate everything based on the person who said it. Get everyone’s ideas first, and put them up on the board, where ownership is less immediately important.

5. Debate with purpose

After the ideas are up on the board? Have at them. "We have a giant profile of the Halsbrook woman that sits above my brother’s desk," says Schroeder (he works at the company, too). "Whatever we come up with at our meeting, when our white board is filled, we say this is our customer, and translate how this affects our customer. Here’s our customer, here’s how she uses technology, is this going to help her or not help her?"

6. Put a few ideas to work fast

There are downsides to being a small startup, but "the good part is being able to make decisions quickly," says Schroeder. If too many ideas get shelved, then people stop trying. "We can actually do what happens in a meeting. And when people feel that kind of agency, it’s kind of fun to come up with ideas."

[Image: Flickr user Bodey Marcoccia]

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  • Tim Kuppler

    Very good ideas. I am shocked I didn't see "prioritize with the brainstorming group." Absolutely shelve most of the ideas the group doesn't agree are the 2-3 highest priorities (or some other very small number in most situations). Force them to debate, vote or narrow the list together. If you take a big list away and implement a few ideas then everyone is left with their own interpretation about whether the right ideas were picked, etc. You "build culture muscle" by prioritizing as a team and the team learns to do it more effectively and direct as they practice the approach more.

  • Marina Brenner

    Great that Halsbrook highlights how important the preparation for such sessions is for both the participants and the moderator! In fact, preparation is crucial for each type of meetings, but it is not invariably the case.
    Thanks for sharing these business lessons.

  • JP

    Early in my career I took a course in how to hold an effective meeting. These points remind me how important it is that everyone should take a course on how to have a meeting. Everyone from the CEO through to the line staff. Every year. Imagine how effective we all could be, and how useful meetings might become.

  • IdeasAreLight

    A good Idea is worth its weight in gold, interesting use of the term! Good Idea's weigh what exactly? So this means good ideas are really worth nothing, and its then very unlikely that 'we' will get rich :(