Designing engaging and productive gatherings
In today’s hybrid work landscape, meetings have become abundant, but unfortunately, many of them still suffer from inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Specifically, meetings aimed at generating ideas to address various challenges related to people, processes, or products encounter recurring issues. The lack of a clear goal in these meetings hinders active participation, and the organizer often dominates the conversation, resulting in a limited number of ideas that fail to fully solve the problem. Both the organizer and attendees are left feeling dissatisfied with the outcomes.
By approaching these pitfalls with intention and careful planning, the organizer or facilitator can overcome these issues. Here are some key aspects to aim for to host an effective ideation session:
- Clear and well-defined goals: The meeting invitation plays a crucial role in setting expectations for participants (see Design for Belonging to learn more about the moment of invitation). Clearly communicate the objective and purpose of the meeting, enabling attendees to prepare and engage effectively.
- Concise problem definition: The quality of ideas is enhanced when the group shares a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Encourage collaborative identification and documentation of pain points, allowing ideas to address the root issues more effectively. The “5 Whys Exercise” is one method to go deeper into the problem space.
- Cultivate psychological safety: Establish a safe environment that nurtures trust among participants. Actively design and foster psychological safety, enabling individuals to freely share their ideas and opinions. This inclusive atmosphere is fundamental to unlocking creativity.
- Structured ideation: Instead of open-ended discussions starting with “What ideas do you have?”, leverage a guided ideation exercise that provides structure and constraints. Humans often struggle to ideate without boundaries, so offering a framework helps participants focus and generate more targeted ideas.
- Diverse communication modes: Expand beyond verbal group discussion to include other forms of communication such as writing, drawing, building, or individual and pair discussions. Embracing diverse communication modes encourages a wider range of ideas and perspectives, reducing biases and enhancing creativity.
- Emphasize idea quantity: Encourage the generation of a large quantity of ideas rather than settling for a limited number. Quantity often leads to quality as it allows for more exploration and diverse possibilities. Remember that the first idea proposed is likely not the best.
- Avoid idea evaluation: During ideation sessions, refrain from judging or evaluating ideas. The goal is to explore a wide range of possibilities without labeling any idea as “bad” or “wrong” until they are tested and proven.
By striving for these principles, you can create a more effective and productive ideation session.
Anyone can run an ideation session
To address the inefficiencies and frustrations associated with such meetings, I have developed a concise and powerful agenda leveraging design thinking methods and mindsets that can be customized for your upcoming ideation session.
The below sample agenda assumes that problem definition is clear. If that is not the case, hold a session prior to the ideation session to align on the problem. Tools such as interviewing, Affinity Mapping, and developing User Need statements and “How Might We” questions can be useful in facilitating that discussion.
A sample agenda for ideation sessions
Estimated time needed: 45–60 minutes
- Introduction & ground rules (2 minutes)
- Share the agenda for the ideation session.
- Review any ground rules or guidelines for the meeting.
- Allow time for attendees to ask questions or seek clarification.
2. Warm-up exercise (5–10 minutes)
- Conduct a warm-up exercise to foster creativity and build rapport among participants such as 30 Circles or One Thing, Nine Ways.
- Choose an activity that aligns with the goals of the meeting and reflects the activities planned for the session. A quick Google search for “warm-up exercises design thinking” will return several potential activities.
3. Frame the problem (2 minutes)
- Share a single artifact (slide, Word Doc, section of text in whiteboard tool) that serves as a summary of the problem, providing participants with a reference point to anchor their thinking and revisit as needed throughout the session.
4. Guided ideation & dot voting (30 minutes)
- Select 1–2 guided ideation exercises such as Crazy 8s, Mash-up, Six Thinking Hats. A quick Google search for “ideation techniques design thinking” will return tons of potential exercises.
- Provide clear instructions.
- Use Dot Voting and/or Prioritization Matrix to select the most promising ideas.
5. Next steps & closing remarks (5 minutes)
- Assign owners or champions for the selected ideas who will be responsible for driving their implementation (if not already known).
- Summarize the key decisions made and actions to be taken.
- Clarify any follow-up tasks or assignments.
- Express gratitude for participants’ contributions and conclude the meeting on a positive note.
The facilitator’s most important work happens outside the session
To facilitate a successful ideation session, proper preparation is key for the meeting organizer. This includes planning the agenda (always set aside more time than you think), setting up the workspace (in-person or virtually using whiteboard tools such as FigJam, Miro, and Mural), and ensuring the participants are ready (meeting invite, pre-work). Dedicate sufficient time for preparation as a facilitator so that you can fully focus on the session and engage with the participants when the time comes. For more guidance on organizing workshops, I highly recommend reading The Workshop Survival Guide.
After a productive ideation session, it’s important to show appreciation to the attendees for their time and ideas. Consider expressing gratitude and highlighting the impressive number of ideas generated by the group, which often comes as a pleasant surprise.
Ideation sessions do more than simply generate ideas
While the obvious goal of an ideation session is to generate ideas to solve the problem, this particular way of work also generates excitement and camaraderie amongst the team. Participants will leave the meeting feeling energized about what’s to come rather than questioning the reason for gathering in the first place.
For more on the importance of ideas and ideation, I recommend reading Ideaflow by Jeremy Utley and Peter Klebahn from Stanford’s d.school who expound on the ideation practice moving beyond a single workshop or event. How does your team support ideation?