Three Essentials for Successful Brainstorming

Filed Under: Strategy Workshops


Kat Figatner

Senior Vice President, In-Person Qualitative Research

If you’ve ever participated in a poorly executed brainstorming session, you can understand why so many cartoonists make light of them. Here are some examples from Savage Chicken and Marketoonist. I thought I’d counter the cartoonists by providing three tried and true tips that I’ve used to ensure successful, productive brainstorming sessions that would result in actionable next steps. These include focus, relevant insights, and a conducive environment.

1. Focus

Clearly defined “dig sites.” It’s important to have an explicit focus area to ideate against so that the brainstorming participants know what they are trying to solve. Think about whom they are serving (the target), what’s important to them (their needs), and what’s getting in the way (their pain points).

For example, I recently read an article from that summarized this framework with a clever acronym – “painstorming.” The author defines painstorming as the process of uncovering pain points to create bigger and better ideas. Beyond just the pain point, the acronym also ensures that you understand your target consumer/shopper holistically:

  • Persona (Who are they)
  • Activities (What do they do)
  • Insights (What do they struggle with)
  • Needs (What are their priorities).

The intent of the brainstorming session is to focus on the consumer and/or shopper and what you can take action against.

At C+R, we take this approach when developing a strategic plan to tackle innovation. First, before any ideation takes place, we work with our clients to identify and define innovation opportunities or the “dig sites.” The goal of this process is to overcover and align on the biggest problems to solve for in the ideation. By addressing a shopper’s/consumer’s burning problem, the innovation should resonate with them and be something they are willing to pay for.

To get there, we incorporate the common problem-solving principles of divergence and convergence. We unpack the research with the lens of “What is the innovation opportunity?” Then, we collaborate to pinpoint different opportunities. As we continue to parse through what we learned, macro-themes of opportunity platforms emerge. Then, the process shifts to exploring what matters most – what are the high-priority opportunities vs. lower-priority ones?

It’s tempting to jump right into the solution vs. focusing on the problem during this process. While we still capture those in-the-moment ideas, our goal is to re-direct the team to think about why that solution makes sense. What is it solving? Taking that approach helps us to uncover the bigger issue at hand which is the problem that the consumer is facing.

In capturing the opportunities, we round out the PAIN framework, detailing who the opportunity is serving (the Consumer/Shopper target) and why it matters to them (the needs or gaps it is addressing).

2. Relevant Insights

The output is only as good as the understanding of the consumer/shopper You need high caliber insights, not just data. In order to get to the step of identifying these rich dig sites that lead to great ideas, you need good shopper/consumer-focused insights. This means having a deep understanding of who the target consumer/shopper is, their struggles, delights, and needs. To accomplish this, you need techniques that go beyond superficial understanding to get to the heart of the consumer/shopper. There are many ways to do this, and we often triangulate insights from several touchpoints with consumers. Here are a few that rely on projective techniques and unobstructive observation, that we’ve found to be extremely effective.

  • In-the-Moment Journaling: Issues don’t always leave a lasting mark, especially if the consumer can employ a work-around. However, we can tap into minor annoyances as well as bigger problems by having consumers document their experiences in the moment.
  • Inundation/deprivation: Current non-buyers are asked to start becoming buyers while current buyers are asked to stop buying. The intent is to get a fresh perspective on tangible and intangible benefits, pain points, as well as rich language about product/retailer and value.
  • Visual attention tracking, wearable and/or stationary cameras: Observing behavior and non-behavior firsthand can help identify tension points or fixes those consumers/buyers may not be conscious of or unable to articulate.
  • Metaphor Elicitation: imagery to help articulate feelings about experiences, brands/products that may be otherwise difficult to express verbally. Participants select images that represent emotions or needs or exemplify how they see a brand/retailer. Probing the selection helps to dig into their latent attitudes and perceptions.
  • Story Telling, “Tweets,” Love Letters and Dear John Letters: used to uncover the shopper journey, the category/brand relationship, that “story” they have over time based on their experiences, capturing both the positive and negative aspects of their experiences.

3. Conducive Environment

Brainstorming needs a balance of play + structure. Once you have the building blocks for brainstorming or ideation sessions – solid insights of consumer/shopper understanding, a clear POV on the problems to solve – you can focus on the idea generation. To get here, whether your session is in-person or virtual, there’s a delicate blending of art and science. It may look like it’s all woo-hoo fun, but there’s a science and structure behind the play.

First, we want to establish an openness to creativity – to invite the blue-sky thinking. We achieve this by bringing in fun elements through gamification of activities, creating a unique and inspiring environment, and other types of play. We want to break clients out of their traditional mindset to allow their minds to be open to embracing the new.

To capture the output, we have a defined structure. What exactly is included in the output framework may vary based on the end goal of the session. Regardless, it helps to connect the dots from the idea to the insight it is based on and flesh it out so that the intent of the idea is not lost as it moves through refinement and development.

In addition, whenever possible, we bring back in the consumer POV to create empathy and inspiration – whether it’s through video, quotes, photos, personas, etc. This helps the team keep the target audience top of mind. As we structure the specific ideation activities, we want to encourage active engagement from all the members. We ask the clients’ point person to assemble a cross-functional team to provide different perspectives on the issues at hand. We partner them up in small groups to facilitate contributions from all participants.

The exercises themselves are varied as some people favor verbal activities, whereas others are more visual thinkers. We want to tap into these different modes of thinking and come at the problems from different angles.

Sometimes, we even pair the clients with our Idea BuildersTM – forward-thinking and creatively-minded consumers recruited from a special panel to undergo creativity screening and ideation training. This synergy of the clients’ category expertise and consumers’ out-of-the-box thinking can lead to magic!

Finally, we have clear, dedicated points in the process for production vs. evaluation. This allows everyone to know what’s expected at each point in the process – whether it’s in the production mode or evaluation mode:

  • In the production mode, there are no bad ideas because you never know what they can spark. You can let your mind go and come up with as many ideas as possible.

In evaluation mode, you want to look at the ideas with a critical and strategic lens – thinking about your brand equity, feasibility, and what’s relevant to consumers. This helps to filter out and prioritize ideas for moving through the innovation pipeline. Brainstorming when done correctly (with focus areas, consumer/shopper understanding, and a conducive environment), can deliver actionable and tangible ideas with consensus to deliver against them. We have seen it happen!

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