5 techniques to organize a collaborative brainstorm

Brainstorming is not a new concept. It is an opportunity for individuals, often from a variety of backgrounds, to gather together to develop new ideas and potential solutions on a specific subject or project.

Written BY

Sarah Obenauer

Sarah is the Co-founder of Purpose Craft. She runs Make a Mark, 12-hour design and development marathons benefitting local humanitarian causes. She also publishes Limitless, built to create a community of women surviving and thriving with Rheumatoid Arthritis. She has been working with nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations and businesses for nearly a decade.

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October 29, 2020

Brainstorming is not a new concept. It is an opportunity for individuals, often from a variety of backgrounds, to gather together to develop new ideas and potential solutions on a specific subject or project.

As creatives, brainstorming opens us up to new ideas, enhances our imagination, allows us to interact with others, and ultimately create a better result.


Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, developed the concept of brainstorming in the 1930s to encourage creativity among his employees, and wrote extensively about it in his 1948 book, “Your Creative Power.”

Osborn’s basic rules of brainstorming were simple — go for quantity, withhold criticism, welcome wild ideas, combine and improve ideas.

Since the 1930s, there have been more articles on brainstorming than one can count. Some of them are insightful; however, the problem with brainstorming tips and tricks is that the human element is often removed from consideration.

Brainstorm sessions might be between designers and developers, marketers and sales executives, creatives and clients — but, regardless, they’re always between people.

At Make a Mark, a 12-hour design and development make-a-thons benefitting local nonprofit organizations across the globe, we hold planning meetings before each event.

The planning meetings were created organically in our first year and play a massive role in a project’s success. The nonprofits that participate understand the importance of visually communicating their story and want to be part of creating their identity. They may not be technical designers and developers but can work with them to convey the purpose and the real impact of their organization. By doing this, the makers then become part of this organization, working with them, not for them.

We have five tried and true techniques that keep the human element in this meeting.

1. Elect a facilitator

A facilitator is a person who has a deep understanding of the topic at hand, as well as those involved in the meeting. It’s important that the facilitator not also be a participant. This frees the other participants to focus on sharing their ideas, listening to others, and being present.

A facilitator should be:

+ Warm and welcoming

+ Open and unbiased

+ Organized and able to transition easily

+ Knowledgeable and passionate about the subject

+ Observant of dynamics between participants

+ Empathetic toward participants

+ Able to foster excitement

+ Able to encourage respect

The role of the facilitator is to keep the meeting on track — keeping an eye on time, engaging participants, and providing prompts to guide the discussion.

We avoid having agendas or questions printed when we run these meetings, (although the facilitator usually has some prompts to guide the discussion). When I tell people this, they look at me shocked, “how can you run a meeting without an agenda?” If we give participants an agenda or even questions, they read ahead and prepare responses instead of sharing their authentic and immediate reactions.

Our meeting layout is a simple one:

+ Introduction of facilitator and translator

+ Explanation of the goals of the meeting

+ Introduction of the participants

+ Ask questions to prompt discussion

+ Allow participants to ask their own questions and engage with one another

+ Closing and next steps

The facilitator also needs to look for potential conflicts, red flags, or other issues that arise may need to be addressed. These red flags can derail the brainstorm, and ultimately the project. They vary, but a few common ones include:

+ Unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas

+ Stubbornness and steadfastness in one’s own opinion

+ Arrogance or annoyance with others

+ Lack of engagement with the process

+ Monopolizing the conversation

We try to stop this type of behavior in its tracks by reminding the participants of the goal of the meeting, that we are all together to share and that we’re avoiding negative and critical language. This may mean redirecting the conversation back to the prompt and a healthier line of thinking, this may mean moving on to a new prompt and revisiting the old one later or this may mean asking someone else to share their viewpoint.

In these meetings, the facilitator acts as an advocate for all participants of the meeting, as well as the subject or project being discussed.

2. Choose a jargon translator

In a meeting between designers and developers, or any two professions, you’ll need a translator to break down of the jargon that’s inevitably going to get thrown around — someone who has experience, or at the very least, an understanding, of both positions, their needs and their struggles.

Much like the facilitator, this person is not typically a participant in the meeting. They are however engaging with participants and making sure that no one gets lost in technical slang and clarifies any confusing communication.

A translator should be:

+ A keen listener and observer

+ Knowledgeable and passionate about the subject

+ Understanding of the individuals and their skill sets

+ Understanding of the jargon that could be used

+ Polite, yet willing to jump into the conversation

+ Able to connect dots between seemingly different skill sets

In our planning meetings, we make sure that there is a translator looking for any potential miscommunication, with an eye on body language and an ear open to stumbling blocks.

A miscommunication that we often hit in our meetings between nonprofits and creatives is when a nonprofit representative refers to a grant monitor or a line item without the maker understanding the implications and guidelines associated with it. Alternatively, a maker might ask a question about brand personality or aesthetic that will leave the nonprofit representative feeling lost. In these situations, the individuals will not always ask the other to explain, so it is the role of the translator to notice the confusion in their expressions and answers, and to ask clarifying questions.

Translators keep brainstorming productive, healthy and clear for those participating.

3. Elevate shy voices

Everyone has opinions, but some are more likely to share their ideas — and maybe even to interrupt. This puts the shy participant in an uncomfortable situation, one where they may not have space or confidence to share.

This is where the facilitator can do their best work, keeping an eye on body language and participants who haven’t spoken up in a while, or who keep getting interrupted. Their job is to bring these voices to the forefront with a, “Travis, did you have a question?” or, “Latisha, it looks like you have something to add.”

This doesn’t mean forcing an introvert or shy participant to share aloud, but making sure that if someone wants to say something, they have the opportunity to say it.

In most brainstorming sessions, keeping track of individuals is easy because you are often circled around a table. Having the facilitator and translator integrate into the group and not sit at the heads of the table makes for not only a more inclusive conversation, but a more observant one.

4. Encourage respect

Respect for one another is an absolutely fundamental part of a successful brainstorm. But when you’re conducting a brainstorm with people who have never met, who rarely interact, or whose respect has devolved, the facilitator has some work to do.

At Make a Mark, we kick off brainstorms by having people introduce themselves, while also briefly showcasing the value of the individual. We already have an understanding of the individuals involved from interviews with the nonprofit representatives and application/portfolio review of the makers. In small group meetings of five or fewer, we will offer a compliment or additional piece of information following each introduction; in groups larger than five, we will emphasize the talent of the creatives and the diligent work of the nonprofits as a whole.

We might say for the nonprofits, “Caroline is a tremendous advocate for children’s rights here in the valley. She and her organization have been fighting for laws that are in service of children for the past 20 years, and have changed legislation at the state level.”

We might also say, “Ojas is a talented software developer in San Francisco with experience working for companies large and small, tackling tough problems with elegant solutions.”

Those in the meeting already trust us, and we are, at this time, advocating for other participants. This appreciation shown by the facilitator and translator encourages a culture of respect amongst those participating.

This period allows for a better understanding of their role in the meeting, an increased sense of confidence and a higher level of respect for those also part of the meeting.

5. Anything goes

Well, not anything, but you get the point. We encourage participants in our meetings to throw out both wild and practical ideas before landing on the path forward. We push participants to think of ideas and concepts without budget or time constraints. We expect participants to be completely open, and in return prohibit negative language and the elimination of ideas in the brainstorming stage.

We don’t want anyone to tell others in the group that their idea is “far-fetched” or “too expensive” or “ridiculous.” In fact, we sometimes ask, what would you ideally want to accomplish if money or time wasn’t a limitation. We all know that money and time do matter, but there is no need to squash creativity early.

This is a key tenet of traditional brainstorming as developed by Osborn: deferring judgment and aiming for quantity, not quality, allows you to reach for unique concepts.

In preparation for the 2018 Chattanooga Make-a-Thon, we held a planning meeting with Welcome Home of Chattanooga. This organization provides shelter, healing and compassionate end of life care for those in need. As part of their project, we brought together a photographer, a graphic designer and a digital marketer. The initial concept of the project was to create a photo series showcasing the residents at Welcome Home, but after a 60-minute brainstorming session, the team came up with a much more impactful concept. They used photos and social media strategy to tell the true story behind death and dying, and to debunk the traditional myths. They focused on starting the conversation around death and dying, with the idea in mind that we should be having these conversations early and often to ensure a peaceful and loving end of life experience.

By pairing traditional brainstorming concepts with these techniques focusing on the individual, we are getting the very best out of every person within a meeting, but more importantly, we are encouraging human-centered, quality collaboration.

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