We have all been in meetings that regardless of the agenda, evolve into a brainstorming session. As I reflect upon this, I think that every brainstorming session I've attended started out as something else. We all know that not all brainstorming sessions are created equal. However, you can increase your odds of having a productive one if the group adheres to a few guidelines.
PRE SESSION PLANNING
You should plan an official brainstorming session if too many of your other meetings turn into brainstorming sessions. For example, a brainstorming session starts about 10 minutes to a meeting that was supposed to go over the project schedule. True, talking about great ideas is generally more fun than defining, prioritizing and scheduling tasks. However, chatting about a brainstorming session with a sponsor is not a great idea when they are wanting to see a project schedule.
The fundamentals of planning a brainstorming session are not that different from the planning process for other meetings. The facilitator will need to define some scope boundaries for the discussion, set an overall time limit (# meetings x meeting duration), the correct participants, the outgoing communication for the meeting and finally the ground rules. Yes, there should be some ground rules in order to keep the session on track and productive.
After communicating the basic ground rules, the facilitator should be ready to assist the assembled group to get their brainstorming off the ground! You will want to encourage the free flow of ideas and discourage judgment of the ideas during the session. Make sure you have a scribe recording the ideas as they happen in a format such as a whiteboard or flip chart. This can help encourage the submission of ideas and to allow for participants to build upon the ones documented.
POST SESSION ACTIVITIES
Post session activities is the missing step where I see most brainstorming sessions fail. The ideas gathered from the session need to be organized, evaluated and presented in a format that adds value to the organization. The ideas should undergo some form of rating such as prioritization, impact or feasibility. The chosen rating method should be open, collaborative and easy to understand.
Now that you have all those great and/or crazy ideas out of the way, you can have confidence that you can stay on track when having those valuable predecessor / successor task conversations during your scheduled planning meetings!