Brain Fuel Funnel: the 6 stages of a truly good brainstorm session

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I’ve been part of many useless brainstorms in my corporate life. Who’s with me? Many people are. These kinds of brainstorms are something I truly dread because I believe they are a waste of our time. We should never waste time on terrible ideas – or even okay-ish ideas. That won’t make your company, life or the world a better place, will it?

This is why I’ve been developing a brainstorm methodology called Brain Fuel. A big part of our way of working is our funnel: The Brain Fuel funnel.
Check it out this beauty below.

Stage 1. Prep

The first blow is half the battle, right? I’ve noticed that many think they are ready to go when they have 1. a table and 2. stack of stickies. Well yeah, but no. Below you’ll find a list closer to reality. But wait!

First, you’ve got to ask yourself, your team and/or the problem owner if a brainstorm is the right way to reach your goal. It is? Keep reading!

1.1 A challenge 

Make sure you start with a brainstorm question which gives both enough room and enough direction. A simple maxim we use is to rewrite your question so that it begins with ‘How might we..’. ‘How might we get more millennials in our customer base?’ or‘How might we stimulate diversity in our company?’.

You won’t get the right answers if you ask the wrong questions (except for the brainstorming technique in which you ask stupid questions to get creative results, but let’s talk about that at some other time).

1.2 A location

The location is probably the most neglected criteria of the brainstorm. Well, of course, there always is a location. But an appropriate location? Working in an environment that stimulates creativity ensures that people come up with creative solutions. A boring office with dropped ceiling means a higher chance of boring ideas. It really is that simple.

Things you want your location to have:
+ Natural light
+ Plants in the room
+ High ceiling
+ An inspiring setting

Remember that a festival setting might give you a higher chance of ideas related to spare time, ‘alcohol’ and ‘summer’. A business setting could net you a higher chance of ideas related to ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘businessmodels’ and ‘making money’.

1.3 An A-team 

People can make or destroy your session. Negative Nancy’s will suck out all the energy of out the room. But participants who are a bit too enthusiastic can also ruin your session because the quiet geniuses won’t get time to shine. Sometimes inviting the CEO of the company is a bad idea too: people might be inclined to agree with the boss. Strongly consider hiring a professional facilitator, this is where you will need them the most (well, that and time management).

Who you want:

+ People with different skillsets (they tend to solve things differently)
+ People with a constructive mindset (critical thinking is valuable, but keep yourself in check until the divergence stage)
+ People who will like each other (if they can’t stand each other you don’t’ want them in one room)

1.4 Materials

The materials you need depend on the brainstorming techniques you will use, which in turn depends on the challenge you’re trying to solve, the size of your team and the location. We use our own Brain Fuel association cards a lot, but some situations ask for different techniques. But of course, there are a couple of classics you’ll never go wrong with.

The classics:
+ Stickies (for quickies), but bigger sized paper for bigger sessions.
+ Brown paper. This paper -when combined with special glue-is like a magical wall on which all paper will stick.
+ Colourful markers. Don’t use pens, because in bigger sessions you can’t read from far away.
+ Boards. Preferably big ones on which you can write (and stick the brown paper on).

Stage 2. Warm-up

Many people believe that warming-up is a waste of time. On the contrary! Every pro athlete starts with a warming-up before they workout. If you want pro results, then you have to warm up your creative brain too! But there is another important reason for warming up: it gives your team energy.

2.1 Choose your warm-up wisely
Some warm-ups are focussed on making people more competitive. Some warm-ups are there for people to get to know each other. Some warm-ups are there to get people more accustomed with the subject matter. Make sure you choose your warm-up accordingly.

Stage 3. Divergence

This is the part that people consider brainstorming. Ideation. Creative thinking.

During a brainstorm session, people tend to focus on this step but forget the rest. We see the divergence round as part of a bigger process. And most of the times we divide this stage in two subparts:

3.1 Round 1: the brain dump
The brain dump is used to clear your mind of all ideas that might be cluttering your mind. Maybe you already think you know the solution. Write it down! Maybe you have some super realistic solutions in the top of your mind. Write them down! At the end of this round, you should have many ideas – but you’re not there yet!

3.2 Round 2: creative exercise
After the brain dump, we take it a step further with a more creative technique. Realistic ideas are great and all, but let’s try to get some creativity going on.

Just like when choosing a warming up, choose a method that fits best with your situation. There are methods suitable for students, businessmen, prototyping, animal lovers, people who love to draw, large groups, individuals, etc.

Yes, there are dozens of methods you can use, but here are some of our favorites. Some are classics and some of them we invented ourselves!

3.3 Are we done?
It happens a lot that people end their session here. They look at the clock. Then they look at the wall and they see lots of colored stickies on the wall. This looks totally creative, guys. A job well done. NO, THAT IS NOT TRUE. DON’T STOP. CARRY ON. We’re halfway there.

Stage 4. Convergence

Let’s say that the divergence part went great and you generated 300 ideas. Next step is to separate the wheat from the chaff! There are several ways to do this. Many of them are in the category of ‘Oh dear, there is not much time left. Quickly choose something!’, like the well known Dr. Love technique, but of course, there are ways that are both efficient and time effective.

4.1 Naming and framing
1. First, stick the ideas that work together well in a group.
2. Then, give this cluster of ideas a name. If all the ideas in a cluster happen to be about ‘turning millennials into ambassadors’, then your cluster could be named “millennial ambassadors”. That was easy!

4.2 COCD-Box
Another one I love is the classic COCD-Box in which a team distributes in #now, #wow, #how and #no ideas. It’s a tad more complicated than that, but it’s still super easy, it friendly forces your team to make decisions together and it gives you a great overview of all your work.

Stage 5. Decision

All right, you’ve made some clusters. Onto the final stage: decision! Which ideas will you implement? Which need to go back to the drawing board? Which darlings will be killed? This stage is so short that it might not feel like a stage at all. But it is – it is that important!

5.1 Selection Day

For this stage, I prefer our Selection Day method, which uses stickers to let individuals ‘tag’ ideas that they think is best is a couple of categories:

❤️ Hearts: Ideas that you would love to work on
🦄 Unicorns: Ideas that you regard the most unique
⏱ Stopwatches: Ideas that you think will work on short notice
📅 Calendars: Ideas that you think will work on long-term.

In Selection Day you make room for the team to talk about their individual reasons for believing in specific ideas. It could be that everybody agrees, but some healthy discussion might arise too. That is perfectly fine, better now than later.

Stage 6. Action

And last but certainly not least, the action stage. Time to turn those ideas into actions. This is were the biggest problems of brainstorming arise because this is where people realize there is work to be done. And some people get very evasive!

So make sure you don’t leave the session before you know what will happen with the ideas your team approved.

You’d like to know the following of each and every selected idea or cluster:
+ What will be the next step?
+ When will be the next step?
+ Who is responsible for the next step?
+ How do we stay informed about the next step?

CONGRATULATIONS. YOU SURVIVED A TRUE BRAINSTORM. I hope the funnel, which really helps us and our customers, will help you too. Let’s stop wasting time on okay-ish solutions and build some true life, company or world-changing ones!

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