brainstorming workshop 2 groups

How to run a successful brainstorming workshop – 7 steps

The process to innovative ideas

“Brainstorming workshops are a fast way to innovative products!”

Can be…

…if you do them right.


How do you create good ideas? And what do you do with all the ideas after the workshop?

This guide teaches you how you will run a successful brainstorming workshop with a small group of people.

No matter if you want to get ideas on how to market your existing products better, want to get a larger market share, or hoping to find innovative solutions in your market – be it physical products, digital products, or services – a well-done brainstorming will get you on the right track.

You will know how to prepare for the workshop, how to set the right tone, how to collect ideas, and what to do after your workshop session.

Yes, the magical tool is post-its but you need to know what to do with them to become a successful brainstormer.

What is (good) brainstorming?

Cambridge defines brainstorming like this:

“An activity or business method in which a group of people meets to suggest a lot of new ideas for possible development”

Cambridge dictionary 

The dictionary says:

a conference technique of solving specific problems, amassing information, stimulating creative thinking, developing new ideas, etc., by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.


Wikipedia defines:

“Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.”

Wikipedia article “Brainstorming”


Design company IDEO, driver of teaching creative methods to professional teams, even promises innovative outcomes:

“Brainstorming is an activity that will help you generate more innovative ideas. It’s one of many methods of ideation—the process of coming up with new ideas—and it’s core to the design thinking process.”


The definitions agree that brainstorming is a creative method where a group of people, typically in a corporate setting, produce a lot of ideas. The spontaneous factor also plays a role, meaning that ideas were not prepared ahead of the brainstorming session but created during the session.


In other words: Brainstorming is a quick and easy method to create a big number of ideas. A group of people gathers in a room, notes ideas on post-its, discusses them and they leave with many good ideas to further work on.

But what exactly happens in a room where a brainstorming session goes well? What is the difference between a “bad” brainstorming versus a brainstorming workshop that gets you the wished results?


Good brainstorming usually doesn’t just happen.

The sad news: You shouldn’t just call for a brainstorming workshop, put a few post-its on the table, discuss ideas with a group of people, and expect to leave the room with a groundbreaking new product idea.


The right team culture enables a well-working brainstorming workshop

Team culture is an important ingredient to successful team brainstorms.

Only when there is a positive atmosphere in the room, ideas will flow and colleagues will collaboratively come to better ideas than they would by themselves.


Behavior HINDERING a collaborative atmosphere:

  • Hierarchical team culture: When no one dares to speak up after the boss has spoken, valuable thoughts are not shared.
  • Multitasking: Either give the workshop your fullest attention and all your brainpower or stay out of the room. A brainstorming workshop where people are checking emails at the same time or solving problems for different projects in their head will not give the wished results.
  • Judging, explaining why something does not work: It’s easy to stop someone with a reality check “that will be annoying to build”, “we will not complete this product in the given timeframe”, “this is too expensive”, … Avoid all of that and instead focus on what could come out if you build on this thought.
  • Ownership of ideas: If you want to keep the really good ideas for yourself, you shouldn’t attend a brainstorming session.


The RIGHT TEAM CULTURE for a brainstorming workshop:

  • Low hierarchies and different fields of expertise: Create an environment where everyone is heard and where teams are a mix of different types of persons with their very unique way of thinking, know-how, and experience.
  • Welcoming crazy ideas: When team members build on each other’s ideas, always assuming that everything is possible, they will come up with much more valuable “final ideas” than if they picked the first few. Also, when someone comes with a crazy idea, try to step back and analyze the context – maybe the idea seems silly, but it addresses an important customer need or
  • Full focus: A brainstorming workshop will be too short, no matter how long it is. To get useful results, the whole group must be engaged, ready, and highly focused.


Structure is key to successful brainstorming

Tim Brown, chair of IDEO, brings it straight to the point in his very simple definition of brainstorming:

“Brainstorming, ironically, is a structured way of breaking out of structure. It takes practice.” 

Tim Brown in Change by Design


Structure is the secret ingredient!


The good news: How to do successful brainstorming workshops is a learnable skill. For the moderator (preparing and leading a workshop) and for the participants. Even people who consider themselves completely uncreative will be surprised what kind of ideas can come out of a good brainstorming session.

It’s a process that needs preparation, clear structures, rules, high focus from everyone in the room and a plan on how to further elaborate on the created ideas.


There are a few key elements that need to be in place for a good brainstorming workshop:

  • Define your topic or problem to solve
  • Have a clearly formulated target
  • Plan who to invite
  • Prepare your workshop
  • Have a highly engaged group that follows the workshop rules and structure
  • Document the workshop outcome
  • Have a plan on what to do next

There are a few key elements that need to be in place for a good brainstorming workshop:

  • Define your topic or problem to solve
  • Have a clearly formulated target
  • Plan who to invite
  • Prepare your workshop
  • Have a highly engaged group that follows the workshop rules and structure
  • Document the workshop outcome
  • Have a plan on what to do next

A good brainstorming session has a problem to solve, a clearly formulated target and the meeting is structured.

brainstorming workshop full group discussion - design thinking methods

How to run a successful brainstorming workshop


Step 1: Define your topic or problem to solve

What is the reason for the brainstorming workshop? Which problem do we want to solve? What do we expect from the workshop?

Brainstorming will not get you good, relevant ideas unless the goal is very clear. There should be one specific problem to solve or one specific topic to explore.

Communicate this key topic / key question / key problem before the workshop.

At the workshop start, present it again, in a very short briefing.



  • Define the key problem / key topic of the workshop. Communicate it before and again at the start of the brainstorming session
  • Formulate questions around your topic
  • Keep the briefing short, ask questions, inspire your colleagues to dream big.
  • Keep the key topic / leading questions visible throughout the workshop. Write it on a Flipchart for example and tape it to the wall.

Step 2: Have a clear target

The expected outcome must be defined upfront: Are you looking for an innovative product? Do you want to find a new target audience? Are you looking for services to provide around your products? Do you want to better cater to the users of your products?

“Good ideas” is not a target, you must know what specific kind of outcome you want.

With a well-formulated target, it will be easier for all team members to come up with specific ideas.

You as the workshop leader will be able to guide discussions in the right direction too.



  • Formulate your goal
  • Share what you don’t know to get to that target
  • The goal should be part of your briefing at the beginning of the workshop

Step 3: Plan who to invite

Now that you know your topic and what you want out of the workshop, write down a group of people who will help you find answers and ideas.

A mixed team can be better than the team you work with every day.

What about the bookkeeper, cafeteria lady, or facility manager? They might bring refreshing new wind to the workshop.


What is the best group size for a brainstorming workshop?

The ideal group size for brainstorming depends a lot on a few factors:

  • Experience of the workshop participants and workshop moderator
  • Complexity of topic
  • Time available
  • Room setting


New to brainstorming workshops? Do it in a small group; 3 – 5 persons.

❯❯ In a large group, sub-teams of 2-5 persons are formed. The more sub-groups you have, the more time is needed for sharing with each other after every round of work. A small group, on the other hand, is quicker and might get further in the same amount of time.

❯❯ The less experienced the group is, the more challenging will it be to brainstorm in a large group: Colleagues who think they are not creative will try to hide in the group and let others do the work. Also, group dynamics are more challenging to handle: Getting everyone to start, listen, come back after a break, stop side-talks can become more challenging in larger groups.

After you get the hang of it, you can expand to larger groups.


A larger group of 15 to 30 people can be valuable if you have a complex topic where you would like to brainstorm around very different sub-topics and bring them together in the end.

❯❯ If you and/or your team are not experienced in brainstorming, but you would still like to do a workshop in a large group, get help and hire a coach who specializes in the field of brainstorming workshops with corporate teams. The coach will help you plan and structure the meeting and will moderate the workshop.


Remember: More people ≠ more ideas



If you would like to include more than 3-5 persons but are not sure if a larger group is a good idea, do multiple brainstorming workshops at different stages in the project:

  • Colleagues from different departments can help come up with different directions.
  • Your target audience can validate the first concepts and can add insights into their needs.
  • The production team can help you work on rough prototype ideas to make the ideas work in practice.
brainstorming workshop top 3 materials

Step 4: Prepare your workshop

You know which questions you want to solve and who will brainstorm with you. Now you can start planning the workshop meeting.


Define and book a room.

Prepare the materials you need. Typically you will need:

    • A room with a clear wall, window space, or table surface to stick the post-its to. If you don’t have a room without empty walls, use a room with large floor space. Post-its can also be laid out on the floor 😉 Optionally you can use flipcharts (stick the flipchart sheet to the surface to put post-its on).
    • Post-its. Many many post-its with enough space to write 1-10 words on them. Different colors can help to structure topics but are not a must.
    • Markers or felt tip pens with medium tip size. Avoid pen – writing with pen will be hard to read a few steps back and on a photo. Readability on the photo is important for the work after the workshop.


In a brainstorming meeting, it’s a good idea to let people work in sub-groups. Plan how many rounds of work you want to do and how many times the groups should exchange their ideas and how many times they present to each other (more details around this process are described under step 5). This defines the structure of your workshop meeting and gives an idea about how much time you need for the full workshop.

Write down a detailed time schedule.

For example:

    • 10 min preparation of the room (moderator)
    • 15 min welcome, briefing, workshop rules
    • 10 min brain-dump
    • 5 min discussion in group
    • 15 min sorting and filling
    • 10 min exchange between groups (5min per group)
    • 20 min deep-dive into top X ideas
    • 25 min exchange and discussion (8 min per group + rest for discussion)
    • 10 min documentation and cleaning up

Now that you have your schedule, let the group know the start and end time of your workshop.



Plan a coffee break or lunch after the workshop and invite the workshop group. This way, the group has the option to exchange after the formal meeting.

Stimulated from the workshop, they might exchange valuable ideas and insights which will help you for further project work.

brainstorming - sticking post-it to the board

Step 5: Run your brainstorming workshop

 In a brainstorming meeting, the group is usually the most effective people brain-dump in sub-groups.

After a first short brain-dump phase, the group steps back, discusses ideas, and reflects on topics that came up. You might want to do a second brain-dump round when there are few post-its on the wall or when the group feels inspired by the discussion and has more ideas.

When many ideas were found, it’s time to sort the ideas. Each group reflects on all ideas on the board. They will notice larger topics. They add header post-its (in a different color, if you have) and re-arrange ideas to fit one of the larger topics. Doing this, there is a lot of reflection and discussion going on and usually, gaps are discovered. Sometimes, important comments are made. Make sure that the groups write everything down.

In the full group’s setting, findings are presented. During the presentations, it becomes clear if the groups went into similar directions or have completely different ideas.

Agree which group should deep-dive into which topic for another round of brainstorming and discussion


Step by step of running a brainstorming workshop


Briefing: Present your findings from steps 1 and 2, the topic, and targets. Keep the briefing short, actionable, and inspirational. Ask questions, don’t present solutions!



Set the tone for the workshop: Go through the agenda and workshop rules. Define someone who takes photos of every group’s board in the different stages.



Form groups



Brain-dump: Everyone writes as many ideas down as possible and sticks the post-its to the wall.



Group discussion: Let the groups discuss and reflect on their ideas.



Sorting and filling: Let the groups re-arrange and sort the post-its by topic:

❯❯ Identify larger topics. Write header post-its

❯❯ Re-arrange post-its to go under the header post-its

❯❯ Step back. Ask if there are gaps. Are there larger topics missing? If yes, fill them in.

❯❯ Reflect if you know more about the “header topic” than is already there. Fill in.

❯❯ If you find hints for sequences (e.g. use of a product), fill in the missing steps



Presentation: The groups present their findings to each other. Short – no detailed presentations.

❯❯ Take photos of all boards




You will observe patterns: Did all groups come to the same larger topics? Are there types of ideas that are mentioned a lot? Did every group view the task from a different angle? In the full workshop group, define which sub-group should focus on which topic for the next round.

Let the groups perform another brain-dump and sorting round. Either divide the times or give them more time to do the two tasks simultaneously.



Let the groups present the deep-dive results to each other.

❯❯ Take photos of all boards



Clean up: After all was documented on photo (make sure you can read the text on the photos!), the group helps clean up the room.


Close the workshop

Important to keep in mind:

  • During the workshop, remind participants that no idea is a bad idea. Everything should go to the wall, even if impossible to realize. Ideas have to be further worked on to practically function but don’t rule them out in the beginning. Maybe they help you to get even better ideas.
    Judging happens when the workshop findings are analyzed, in the project work after the workshop.
  • Don’t be stressed if time is not enough. It’s always too little time!
    Encourage the participants to get as much done in the little time they have. Let them know how much time they have before each round and set a timer.

Rules for an effective brainstorming workshop

  • Use the right pen (readable on photos)
  • No idea is a bad idea!
  • Build on each other’s ideas – no ownership of ideas, no judging
  • Go for quantity
  • Keep it short. Keywords or basic sketches instead of writing sentences
  • No perfectionism!
  • One idea or keyword per post-it
  • Keep it simple, use active language
  • Think from different angles – e.g. your view, customer’s view, user’s view, anyone else involved
  • Think of the product before, during and after its use
  • Write everything down that has an influence (locations, persons, materials, etc. – not only product ideas)
  • Stick to timing! It will never be enough time and that’s ok.
document brainstorming workshop mindmap board

Step 6: Document the workshop outcome

Ideally, you are taking photos of all boards’ evolvement during the workshop (or define a workshop participant to do it for you).


What is an absolute MUST is that you take good photos of all boards at the end of the workshop. Take an overview photo of each board. When you have large boards, take close-ups as well.


Tip: Before you clean up, double-check the photos: Zoom in and make sure you can read everything before you throw away the paper.


Back on the desk, document the workshop.

Print the group board photos or look at them on screen, zooming in to read every post-it. Note down the different topics that each group presented in the first presentation round, and the words and ideas to each topic. Do the same for the end result, for discussion points, and the full group’s findings in the final discussion.

Ideally you don’t only write pages of words but replicate the visual structure of the boards, at least in an additional version.

Adding photos of the boards and people discussing during the workshop is a good way to transfer the atmosphere of the workshop. Plus it adds proof and transparency.

This documentation will support you further down the timeline if your decisions are questioned. If you can reconstruct the thinking towards the ideas, you are making a much stronger case than if you base the process on gut feeling alone.

Step 7: Have a plan on what to do next

This step seems obvious but it’s very important: Know what you are planning to do with the results of the workshop.

If you don’t plan your project in a way to truly build on the ideas that came up during the workshop, why do the workshop in the first place?


Now that you had your workshop, you see more clearly what the next steps are. You might have 2 completely different pathways to explore. You might know the topics which will NOT bring value to your project. Maybe you have 5 product ideas that you can prototype and test.

Whatever it is, know what to do to make something out of the ideas that were gathered.



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How to Run a Successful Brainstorming Workshop – 7 Steps

Feb 19, 2022 | Design Thinking, PRODUCTIVITY

last updated: October 10, 2023

by Corinne

by Corinne

My background

I have extensively practiced brainstorming in design school and in usability training. Working in a corporate environment, I gained experience in applying the same methods with multidisciplinary teams and colleagues who are not familiar with creative methods.

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