How to Do a Brainstorming Meeting

Meetings have been known to temporarily destroy your soul, even brainstorming meetings. Here’s a solution

True story – it’s Manhattan in the year 2001, at an enormous, chaotic digital agency that populates several floors of a converted Soho warehouse. I’m in a meeting room on the 4th floor.

The new Manager Director has strong opinions about how to run a meeting. For one thing, he believes they should always start on time. 

At 9:58 or so, he enters the meeting room, expecting to find us seated and ready. He checks his IDF-issued Adi watch. At 10:00:00 he locks the door. Not at 10:00:29 or 10:00:59, but right on the dot at 10 am. 

The locked door handle jiggles, and there are knocks on the door – at 10:03, 10:05. But he doesn’t open it for me, hehe.

Usually, I was on the inside actually. It was interesting to see how he reacted to a late-comer’s knocks.

He’d shrug his shoulders, shares a chuckle with us, and keep running the meeting.

What do you think – not about punctuality, but about locking the door and refusing to open it? Drastic or reasonable?

At the time we thought it evil.

But in retrospect, it was reasonable if not brilliant.

A refreshing dose of time-appreciation in the anarchic dotcom world, where half of us looked and acted like extras from Dazed and Confused. (A world captured in the New Yorker classic, My Fake Job [1]).

And these were not management meetings, they were, for the most part, brainstorming sessions yielding ideas related to UX, information architecture, etc.; creative work.

Another example of constraints engendering creativity.

Besides not being late, another of the managing director’s guiding principles was, “Say what you have to say in one 1 minute or less”. This rule was observed by the meeting facilitator himself (the aforementioned hardass).

He measured our speaking time with his watch for the first few meetings until we got the hang of it, and then relaxed the one minute rule. I’d say we made a slight improvement in our capacity for thoughtful brevity.

Here’s how one felt in those meetings:

  • Alert, because you were aware of the value of time
  • A feeling of fellowship, derived from close collaboration
  • Respected/respectful of your peers for being alert and focused
  • Reassured that your time would not be wasted [2] 

Good mind-conditions for thinking, I’d say. But just the table stakes for a brainstorming meeting.

There are many reasons to hold a meeting:

  1. To make decisions that require group assent (which may or may not be part of a brainstorming meeting)
  2. To communicate sensitive or complex information, ideally in fluid response to a series of mini-objections or questions that happen in real-time
  3. To let people meet and get to know each other
  4. To create and validate ideas in a group context (brainstorming)

I’m not addressing reasons 1-3 here; I’ll just say that they are all valid reasons but are often abused, especially #2, given that there are so many options for us when it comes to communicating information interactively (ie Slack).

So what do you need – besides punctuality and brevity –  to make #4 work?

Preparation Research & Question-crafting

Have you heard the question, “what’s the agenda for this meeting?”. It almost hurts to write those words out. It cringes me. I imagine an enormous hall of 30,000 pained faces asking that question on repeat, like a Black Mirror episode that makes you uncomfortable but you just keep watching. What a tragic thing to have to ask.

Bad Meeting culture is tragic and even soul-destroying, at worst, and a waste of time, at best. 

Agendas are not the solution to the Bad Meeting problem, but they can guide us to that solution. They are important.

Why? Not to create order. Not to “stick to a schedule”. Not to “get things done”. None of that is my problem.

Here’s why: to let you perform the relevant research. This goes beyond preparation, at least where brainstorming is concerned.

If you research in advance, then your ideas could be better. If a group of people researches the same material in advance, magic could happen.

Maybe it doesn’t matter for some. Maybe if you have been working at IDEO for 40 years and you designed Apple’s first computer mouse back in 1981, you can just show up to a product design meeting, after you fold the agenda up and make a paper airplane. Maybe if you’re Barack Obama, you can just show up to a communications strategy meeting.

Maybe that’s how sloppy brainstorming meetings became a thing?

But even then, wouldn’t it help you to focus your attention on the specific problem that needs solution ideas? And wouldn’t it help you to review the same information as others in the group?

Think about the very best classroom discussions you had in high school or college – and all the collective research (reading, exercises) that went into them.

Brainstorming Meeting Agenda – Research and Questions

So here’s what to do, as the organizer(s) of the meeting:

  1. Make and deliver an agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting commences
  2. Call it the Research Agenda
  3. Divide the meeting into agenda items, but call them “Questions”
  4. Name a facilitator [4] to each question in order to accomplish three goals: (a) let every participant lead at least part of the meeting, (b) give each participant an entry point into researching meeting material, and (c) cut down the talk time of the those who love to talk.
  5. Provide links, attachments, etc., to the material so that every meeting invitee has the opportunity to do research. Research can mean simply exposure.

Is it a lot of work for the meeting organizer? Yes, ideation is hard work (this by itself is a very light ideation process, actually). But yes, it’s a ton of work to prepare for meetings this way.

And here’s what to do, as the attendee(s) of the meeting:

  1. Look at the research agenda at least a day before the meeting begins
  2. Set aside some to answer for yourself the questions that will be asked in the meetings
  3. Figure out you know that other people don’t that will help answer the question and refresh your knowledge of it in your mind
  4. Sleep on it. At least for one night, if not more.

It’s also a lot of work for participants and I’d look for ways to compress this process down to its bare minimum without compromising it. So that it stays a brainstorming meeting and not a group research project.

That’s the simplest possible recipe for a brainstorming session. The table stakes matter, of course – the timing of the agenda delivery, the facilitation style, the punctuality of the meeting itself.

But the most important thing is research and the questions – if you find yourself asking more helpful questions during the meeting, you’re on to something.

This is so much more work than just showing up – try it and let me know how it goes.

Rowan

PS There’s a free Brainstorming Meeting Agenda template for you https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Wosu1QZkifhHR0CH671Rl_ZdLjeMkG-0/edit


 

FOOTNOTES

[1] We now know that the article itself was fake as a piece of journalism. Rather, it was satirical – but without being clear on that point, as David Remnick apologetically lamented. 

[2] A bit irrelevant but he would also leave the meeting at precisely XX:55:00 – mid-sentence on one occasion. Of course, he was doing this to make a point about the value of time. He was teaching us to respect our own time. And to be fair, he always gave the 5-minute warning. Now whether the meetings needed to last an entire hour is a separate question

[3] The best article I have ever read on how to design a meeting is from HBR https://hbr.org/2015/03/how-to-design-an-agenda-for-an-effective-meeting. I used it for many years when I ran a consulting firm. It doesn’t quite apply to brainstorming meetings, which should definitely not be so beholden to arbitrary time-constraints, but I have adapted it

[4] Consensus decision-making is useful here. I learned it at an SCA co-op in the ’90s and then re-learned it in 2011 with David Graeber, the “anti-leader” of OWS https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Graeber. The key piece here is facilitation; that the asker and owner of the question not dominate the answering of it

[5] Probably one of the top 6 or 7 books on Ideation is A More Beautiful Question https://amorebeautifulquestion.com/book-a-more-beautiful-question/. He presents plenty of thought-provoking questions, though he does get a bit rah-rah on Silicon Valley and neurodemia (neuroscience-fanboyism + academia + tedx talks), where the obvious is sometimes stated too breathlessly


UPDATES ON MEETING SCHEDULING TOOLS

  1. x.ai has an AI-based software solution to scheduling meetings. Let’s see how well it works (ie let’s see how well it integrates)
  2. Calendly and Acuity are the best meeting scheduling tools I know of. Acuity has better Google Calendar integration; Calendly is slightly better overall but a bit weak on integrations