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The term “brainstorming” is technically a gerund, a verb that wants to be a noun. A gerund implies more than one step or activity. Osborne’s original Applied Imagination, also known as Brainstorming, relies on separate Ideation and Analysis activities.

To facilitate brainstorming properly use ideation rules and analysis tools. When done poorly, it leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. Optimally, brainstorming includes three discrete activities:

  1. List (also known as diverge or ideate)
  2. Analyze (the hardest of the three activities and the analysis is frequently omitted)
  3. Decide (also known as converge or document)

A facilitator or session leader must be conscious where the group is and upon which activity the group should focus. Many people are confident in their facilitation skills because they can stand at an easel and capture ideas (or provide instructions and gather Post-it Notes®). Those same leaders then turn to their participants. They ask them to create categories, or worse, ask what they would like to do with the list. This type of leadership is NOT facilitation and does NOT make it easier for the group to make an informed decision.

Besides non-narrative methods of capturing participant input, consider the following ideation options when gathering narrative input from your participants.

With narrative brainstorming, first remember to enforce the rules of ideation when diverging. Prevent discussion while you are capturing their ideas. At the end of ideation, consider one last round robin for final contributions, allowing participants to say “pass” if they have nothing to add.

Five Narrative Brainstorming Methods to Generate Participant Input

Ideation Ground Rules for Narrative Brainstorming

Keep in mind that the term “listing” may be more appropriate if you are collecting a known set of information. True ideation derives all future possibilities—anything goes. Beginning with the traditional, facilitator-led question and answer approach; consider the following to improve ideation:

Ideation Options to Consider for Narrative Brainstorming

  • Facilitator-led questions—keep in mind that you can use a support scribe(s) but if so, remind them of the importance of neutrality and capturing complete verbatim inputs.
  • Pass the pen or marker—again having prepared the easel title/ banner, have participants walk up to the easel in the order of an assigned round-robin sequence to document their contribution(s). This approach is wise after lunch or when participants’ energy is low because it gets participants up and moving around. Help them with their penmanship or clarity if necessary.
  • Pass the sheet or card—particularly appropriate if time is short, the group is large, or you have many questions requiring input (distribute a writing pad or index card for each question). Write the question or title on individual large cards or sturdy-stock pieces of paper and either sitting or standing have the participants pass them around until each person has had the opportunity to make a contribution to each question. This approach helps reduce redundant answers since participants see what prior people have written.
  • Post-it Notes—continue to use easels with sheet titles for posting the notes. Have individuals mount one idea per note. Allow as many notes as they want. Post them on the appropriate easel whose title/ question matches to their answer. If there is more than one question, you can color coordinate the easel title/ banner with the Post-it note colors.
  • Round-robin—again having prepared the easel title/ banner, and perhaps in consort with a scribe(s), create an assigned order by which the participants one at a time offer content, permitting any of them to say “pass” at any time.

Possible Time-boxing

Consider time boxing the ideation step if necessary, typically in the five to ten minute range. Remember, the hard part is the analysis that occurs next.

Analysis Drives Convergence

Facilitate Brainstorming By Stressing Analysis

Brainstorming Requires Ideation AND Analysis

The difficult part of brainstorming, and frequently facilitating, is knowing what to do with the list—how to lead the group through analysis that is insightful. There is no “silver bullet” for the ill-prepared. Determine appropriate analysis methods before the meeting, with an alternative method in mind as a contingency or backup plan. Many of our other articles on Best Practices are about HOW TO analyze input.

For example, there are numerous ways to help groups prioritize, from the simple through the complicated to the complex. Purchasing stationary may be simple. Yet designing machinery (eg, jet airplane) is complicated. Creating artificial intelligence (think IBM’s Watson playing Jeopardy) and machine learning are truly complex. Each has a different and appropriate method for analysis and prioritization.

For example one might use PowerBalls for a simple decision. To drive consensus around a complicated decision, something more robust is required such as a quantitative Scorecard approach that separates criteria into different types such as binary (ie, Yes/ No), scalable (more is better), and fuzzy (subjective). Alternatively, qualitative Perceptual Maps may suit some groups better. MG RUSH‘s proprietary quantitative SWOT analysis provides a hardy and robust tool.

We post responses based on our body of knowledge (BoK) supported by decades of experience leading groups to make higher quality decisions. Therefore, narrative Brainstorming tool comprises three steps; diverge, analyze, and converge.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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