Vet Your Question Before You Brainstorm

A facilitated exercise where you draw out and capture the intelligence of a group of, aka brainstorming, is something that I often do in my communication and leadership practice.  Brainstorming may seem like a simple activity; however, there are many pitfalls and ways to avoid them.  Today I will share with you one best practice that I have stumbled upon though experience.  It is often neglected; however, when done, it starts your conversation on a much better note.

Most brainstorms start with a question, the question itself is important but this post deals with the step immediately after unveiling your question to your participants.  I call it vetting the question.  This means, before I ask participants to do anything with a brainstorming question, I ask for their understanding of the question and if it is the right question for the group and the session.  I have learned not to assume these things, especially with a diverse group of people and especially when I am working with them for the first time.

My preference for vetting a brainstorm question is using a process called Silent Review. Silent Review is a plenary (whole group) conversation that, in this context,  has five:

Step 1: Prior to the brainstorm session, place your question on a single flipchart paper as large as you can print it.  If it doesn’t fit, reconsider the wording to make it more concise.

Step 2: As the start of the brainstorming, ask your participants to silently read your brainstorming question and only speak if they have an answer to the three questions you will ask them.

Step 3: Ask your participants: “Are there any clarification required regarding this question?”  Then lead a facilitated conversation to ensure full clarity in your brainstorm question.  Change the question as required.

Step 4: Ask your participants: “Is there anything missing regarding this question?” Then lead a facilitated conversation to ensure your brainstorm question is asking everything that participants want to be asked in the exercise to follow.  Change the question as required.

Step 5: Ask your participants: “Can everyone live with this question for the sake of our brainstorming session?” Then lead a facilitated conversation to ensure everyone agrees with your brainstorm, as amended by Step 3 and Step 5.

At this time, your brainstorming question is properly vetted and you can continue with your brainstorm exercise with confidence.  Not only that, now will your question become your participants’ question because you gave them the opportunity to provide input.

Build in 5-10 minutes for this process in your agenda.  This time may seem problematic in a tight session; however, consider it a worthy investment that will provide dividends from the clarity and focus it produces.  Confused participants give substandard answers and the brainstorming has to be interrupted to clarify the question and this gobbles up more time that vetting it properly in the first place.   Not to mention it affects your professionalism and credibility with your audience.

If you want an effective brainstorming session, remember to vet your question before you ask it.

Have you ever vetted your question in this way?  If so, what method did you use?   Or, have you seen a brainstorm that didn’t do this and went sidewise?


Comment below, tweet me @gsjonuk, or email me at thejonuks@shaw.ca

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