A Perfect Brain(storm)

Brainstorms, once conducted in smoky, whiskey-soaked halls of the Mad Men advertising era, have become a popular problem-solving tool used by every industry. If you’ve ever thought of running one, read on.

We sat down with our in-house brainstorming expert, Director of Strategy Marco Iannucci, to get a three-part blueprint for how to run the best brainstorm of your life.

“The most common misconception,” says Marco, “is that you can start prepping for a brainstorm the day before. It’s more like three weeks before.”

Part 1: Before (Research and Prep)

The Research

Take Marco’s words to heart. In order to run a successful brainstorming session, you must first do your prep work. Once you’re clear on the problem you want to tackle, research everything you can about it. Specifically:

  • Market landscape
  • Tangential markets
  • Competitive overviews
  • Existing marketing materials—plans, playbooks, collateral, successful campaigns
  • Annual reports
  • Industry news

The Participants

Whether you’re coming in from the outside or conducting the brainstorm in-house, research the participants.

  • Who’s the main point of contact?
  • Who will be the final decision maker?
  • Are there any personality conflicts to avoid?

Marco says that there should be four key personas in every session: the facilitator whose job it is to get the most out of the group without participating in the actual brainstorming, the key decision maker(s), the other participants, and an optional guest speaker or subject matter expert.

Once you know who’s who and what their areas of responsibility are, you can decide who to invite. Marco recommends capping your list at 15 people if you’re going to break off into smaller groups, and 7 for a single group. The cap is just a simple question of math: invite too many people and there won’t be enough time for everyone to be heard.

Ready to book a space, dust off your best jokes, and run a killer session? Great! But before you do that, make sure that the participants are all in agreement on a realistic goal and that you have the key stakeholder on board. Dealbreaker alert: The top decision maker(s) must be invested and present. If they’re not, don’t even bother conducting the brainstorm. Marco says he’s turned down clients who’ve asked him to conduct sessions without the top decision maker(s), because “if your key stakeholders haven’t bought in and aren’t your biggest champions, then the rest of the room won’t buy in.”

OK. So the research is done, the right people have been invited, a realistic objective is in place, and the key stakeholder is excited and ready to go. You’re now ready to rent your very own whiskey-soaked, Mad Men–style hall.

The Logistics

The thinking behind doing brainstorms outside of the office is that there’s less temptation to go back to the desk and work. Also, a change of scenery can help put people in a creative frame of mind. So when renting a space, find a place where it’s easy to concentrate.

Once the location has been secured, figure out what the participants will need to get prepped and how you’ll use the time you’ll have with them. Here’s what to consider:

Homework assignment

Any reading, video watching, or writing required to get participants in the right mind-set.

The space
  • Location
  • Transportation
  • Number of hours or days
  • Amenities
  • Food
  • Tech support
  • Additional equipment and props
The schedule

Most brainstorms start out with some kind of icebreaker, which is then followed by a series of 15-, 20-, or 30-minute breakout sessions where participants may be divided into smaller groups and given a particular question to discuss. When coming up with the schedule for the day, think about:

  • Exact timeline
  • Number of groups
  • Number of people in each group
  • Activities
  • Breaks
  • Closing
  • Plan B with different questions, icebreakers, and groups—in case plan A isn’t working


Part 2: During (Pacing)

The most successful brainstorms are the ones where facilitators can establish and maintain a good pace, ensuring maximum engagement and participation. Knowing how to engage the room comes with practice, but here are a few things that can help a novice:

  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan.
  • Watch for levels of enthusiasm and lulls—if participants aren’t discussing a particular topic or question, feel free to stop and move on to something new. If, on the other hand, a topic generates a lot of discussion, feel free to stay with it longer.
  • Minimize opportunities for participants to step out of the room (e.g., don’t schedule bathroom breaks, but allow people to excuse themselves or step out).
  • Make a rule about the use of laptops and cell phones during the brainstorm.

Let the group do the work. The facilitator is there to engage and push, but part of the experience is for the participants to have sweat in the game. If you find yourself drawing out or mapping solutions, stop. At the same time, you should be listening for and writing down themes that are coming up. You’ll have to summarize the results and walk the group through them at the end of the session.

Part 3: After (Follow-Through)

Follow-through is key. A productive session is worthless without a clear action plan and a set of next steps—this is when the top decision maker really plays a part. After the brainstorm:

  • Follow up with participants right away with recaps and expectations
  • Don’t wait more than five business days before taking action
  • Work in quick bursts and cycles—the faster you can get into action, the more value the activity brings
  • As always, ensure key stakeholders are brought along

Tall, Ddark, and Brainstormy

Here’s what to remember if you want to run a brainstorming session worthy of Don and Peggy. Before the session, research everything you can, gather the right mix and number of people, and make sure the top decision maker is fully invested. When all that’s done, carefully plan the space, time, and schedule. During the brainstorm, watch the room and keep things moving. Afterward, make sure to follow through—create a game plan with actionable steps and don’t wait more than five business days before getting started.

And that, as they say, is all folks. Go get ’em, tiger!