Oh god, not another brainstorming meeting

Right?! What I’m going to call “traditional” brainstorming leaves a lot to be desired. People immersed in the project sit around a table and basically whoever talks first or the loudest is suddenly the smartest person in the room and idea generation gets boxed in for the rest of the meeting. It’s unproductive. It’s intimidating. It’s limiting.

I’m going to teach you how to run a brainstorming session that is easy to run, a joy to participate in, scalable, and at the end I’ll go through how to turn it into a virtual session that can be run live or done individually.

In marketing, and in business in general, we’re finally coming to understand that diversity breeds innovation and success quickly follows. “Traditional” brainstorming sessions don’t make enough space for diversity of thought and communication styles. They absolutely work sometimes, and for certain projects, but when you’re trying to do the Big Idea kind of brainstorming especially, there are just better ways to approach it.

Brainstorming, but make it inclusive and collaborative

Look around at who is in the room (or on your screen) at your next brainstorming session. And then think about the people in your organization or company who aren’t there. Is your client even there? If yes, is it just one or two people you work with the most?

Then, ask yourself why? Why is it just these people taking part in the big thinking? Great ideas come from everyone and everywhere, and if you truly want some interesting and new perspectives, it’s important to include people you haven’t before. Also, many clients really love to be involved in the brainstorming process and find it really interesting and productive too.

Brainstorming, but make it fun

I am a firm believer that brainstorming should be fun. It shouldn’t be a slog and it shouldn’t be nerve-wracking. It should be a chance to let your mind run wherever it wants to without actually thinking too hard about the ideas you’re coming up with in the moment. I feel like sometimes we don’t do enough of that for fear of coming up with “bad” ideas.

Oh no, that single idea wasn’t any good! Who cares? You have to get at least ten bad ideas out of the way before your good ones will really shine anyway. There’s a reason that first drafts exist in writing and there’s also a reason why tenth or fiftieth drafts exist too. We’re not built to get everything right on the first try, and that includes generating ideas.

Brainstorming, but without limits

I think that a lot of us are stuck in “traditional” brainstorming because we’ve simply never been shown another way to do it. You’ve never experienced a really unboxed and opened up brainstorming session that gets people moving and excited and the room full of laughter. And it actually does what brainstorming sessions are supposed to do – it creates a whole bunch of great ideas.

I’ve been in and run these sessions for everything from non-profit organizations, to credit unions, to private businesses, to government and they work for everyone on every topic. So, let’s do this!

Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) is the new brainstorming

Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) sessions are a process I learned at the Saskatchewan Science Centre, who I believe learned it from TELUS Spark. Great ideas really do come from everywhere. I introduced RIG sessions quickly after I started at Phoenix Group because I realized how big their potential was for exactly the sort of work we do and the regularity with which we need new ideas.

The main reasons I prefer a RIG session over brainstorming is because they actively encourage innovation and wider thinking, they don’t require anyone to speak up, and they quickly generate just tons of ideas. Those are some very good reasons to give one a try.

To break it down, RIG sessions are a largely non-verbal idea generation session that is strictly timed and is designed to work even with people who are only vaguely familiar with your client, project, or goals.

How to set up a RIG session

You probably know what you’re brainstorming about, so the first thing you can do to prepare for a RIG session is come up with what questions you’ll be asking everyone. These should be specific enough to get the answers you need, but also fairly open ended. They could also be broken down by different mediums or however you see fit, really. These questions often take some time to massage, so don’t worry if it takes a few tries. You usually want about 5-7 questions. I always include a blue-sky question though; if time and money were no object, what would we do?

For materials you’ll need easels with plain paper or (my favourite) those giant sticky notes. You’ll also need markers in a variety of fun but readable colours, small stickers (dots or stars are nice), and a timer (your phone works fine).

To physically set up the space you’ll be hosting in (a large boardroom works well, or even spread out down a hallway), write a single numbered question at the top of each piece of paper and space them out. Place a marker and a sheet of stickers at each station. You’ll want to have extra papers available at each station as well.

Invite everyone. I mean it. They don’t need to have knowledge of your client or the project, they don’t need to work in your department. They can be your janitor or the barista from next door, or if someone has their daughter at work that day, invite her. Everyone is welcome and the more diversity in your group the better your session will be. If your numbers are too unwieldy for a single session, it’s easy to run multiples of the same session if needed or to accommodate schedules. You want to have no more than about 3 people at each question at a time, so keep that in mind when thinking about numbers.

Running a RIG session

If you wrote the questions and set up the space – congrats, you’re probably running this thing! Each session does need a leader to keep things going smoothly and go over the rules and whatnot.

I like to start out each session with just a very quick high-level introduction of what we’ll be brainstorming about that day. So who the client is, if they have a primary target audience, and what their goals are, and explaining any terms or other things in the questions that might be confusing for someone who isn’t otherwise involved.

For instance, if we were running a session for The Ministry of Trade and Export Development, I would let everyone know that the target audience is investors, primarily outside Saskatchewan, and we produce a lot of testimonial videos for them. So, we have access to lots of b-roll and other footage. Their primary goal for this campaign is attracting investors to Saskatchewan.

Then I go over the rules and break everyone into teams (if needed). I usually do this by simple numbering off, so that the people who arrived together get separated. You want these teams to be mixed and no more than about 3 people at each station. It’s also fine to have just one person at a time at each station.

You can let your group know that the idea with a RIG session is to essentially just write as many ideas as possible on each sheet. So, it’s fine if there’s some repetition, or half-baked ideas, or ones that would be impossible to execute. It’s also fine to riff off of ideas that may already be on the sheet. Essentially anything goes and the goal is to brain dump on paper.

After that, when everyone is at their numbered starting station, you can start the first five-minute timer. When the timer is up, everyone rotates to the next board. Stick with just five minutes for the first three stations or so, but you can add just a few extra minutes when the pages start to get full and people need time to read over what’s already there. Never go more than about eight minutes at a station, and you can give people time after to read what they missed.

If someone comes across an idea that’s already written that they like or want to second – put a sticker next to it! Once everyone has visited every station, you can give a few minutes for everyone to focus on just this as well.

Now that you’ve all generated some great ideas and there are some evident favourites, it’s time to discuss them. It’s best, if possible, to have someone take a few notes during discussion because ideas can often be expanded on at this stage and you don’t want to miss recording that.

The rules of RIG

The rules are here to make sure that every RIG session is successful. Each session needs a leader (who also participates), and these rules should be gone over at the start of every session even if everyone has participated in one before. They’re a good reminder of what you’re trying to do and what is and isn’t acceptable.

  1. Everyone participates
  2. There are no bad ideas or ideas that aren’t worth sharing (no matter how weird, silly, common sense, or completely outlandish)
  3. Quantity over quality is … great!
  4. Zero judgement

RIG quick start guide

Here are the basics for running your RIG session:

  1. Set up:
    1. Papers with your questions (numbered)
    2. Markers
    3. Stickers
  2. Give everyone a very brief, few sentence intro to what you’re brainstorming about.
  3. Go over the rules of RIG.
  4. Explain that everyone will get 5 minutes at each station, to put a sticker next to ideas they like, and that there will be time at the end to read everything and add stickers.
  5. Take any questions from your crowd.
  6. Number everyone off into teams (if needed) and send them to their corresponding numbered question.
  7. Set a five-minute timer and GO!
  8. Give one minute or thirty second warnings to finish up final thoughts.
  9. Everyone moves one station over.
  10. Continue steps 7-9 until every team has tackled every question. Increase time by no more than 3 minutes if needed to allow reading time when papers are getting full.
  11. Allow time for everyone to wander around and read, adding stickers to ideas they like.
  12. Discussion time. Go over the most popular ideas and talk about them.

Congrats! You’ve run a RIG session and probably have so many incredible ideas to work with now!

Pivot RIG to online

In 2020 our team, and everyone, was faced with the pretty hefty challenge of a sudden and indefinite pivot to virtual-only meetings. That meant brainstorming had to be done virtually as well and virtual brainstorming is …. not ideal.

Until RIG!

With the wonders of the internet, and shared spreadsheet capabilities, RIG sessions can be pretty seamlessly transitioned to all virtual. All of the pre-work is exactly the same, but instead of physical papers with each question, make a sheet in a sharable spreadsheet application such as Google Sheets. Anything that multiple people can edit at once is what you want.

I recommend running the session essentially exactly the same as in person, so everyone hops on a Zoom call or similar so you can go through the preamble and rules, then share the link to the spreadsheet, giving everyone a page to start on. Instead of stickers, fill the squares next to the idea you like with a highlight colour or emoji. The leader will still call the time and ask everyone to move to the next sheet. The only thing to watch out for is that if you have multiple people on the same sheet, leave some lines between where they’re working or there’s a chance they’ll type over each other and ideas will be lost.

If you can’t have everyone working together, you can also send out the preamble over email, and give everyone access and instructions. What you lose in that, is that people will want to take more than five minutes at each question and will self-edit much more than in a time crunch situation. You lose out on those uncensored first thoughts and wacky ideas when given too much time. Many people in your sessions will be creatives or creative-adjacent, and you know that we will never be done working on something if not given a hard deadline.

One benefit of a virtual RIG session is that no one has to transcribe all those ideas as they are already nicely digitized.

Final thoughts on RIG

I’m sure that you can tell by now that I’m a real advocate for RIG sessions as the brainstorming method of choice in our agency. It just proves itself again and again to not only get the job of generating ideas done, but to be a fun and inclusive experience that gets everyone excited about the work we’re doing – no matter what that work is.

It will work for you whether you’re a bootstrap startup with a product to sell, a huge company moving your branding international, or how I got my start with RIG sessions; a not-for-profit science centre with a visiting exhibit to market and develop programming around. If you can gather a room (or Zoom call) full of people, you can run a RIG session that will give you so many good ideas you won’t even be able to use them all. And that’s really what we want from our brainstorming at the end of the day.