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Use Brainstorming that Breaks Through

Several people sitting around a conference room table as one person stands at the front of the room hanging sticky notes on the wall.
Photo Credit: Jason Goodman via Unsplash

A framework to help marketers, communicators, outreach managers, fundraisers, programming teams and leaders generate out-of-the-box ideas that solve sticky challenges, create new opportunities, and drive greater mission impact—in 60 minutes or less!

This Breakthrough Brainstorming Toolkit will help you:

  • Prepare strategically for a highly productive and fun brainstorming session
  • Inspire people to think in big, bold new ways
  • Generate tons of ideas in a short amount of time
  • Identify and prioritize highest-potential ideas
  • Turn ideas into action

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.”

Albert Einstein

Brainstorming. Ideation. Creativity.

By any name, generating new, big, bold and sometimes wildly unexpected ideas helps your organization stay relevant, solve difficult challenges or explore new opportunities to deliver on your mission.

Let’s get started!

Why Quality Brainstorming Matters

Divergent thinking is all about being expansive, imagining possibilities, and getting a lot of ideas on the table. Convergent thinking is about sharpening focus to narrow choices. These opposites work together to help you create and choose the ideas with the greatest potential for success.

Breakthrough brainstorming is an intentional approach to inspire fresh thinking, helping your team come up with a diverse and wide-ranging collection of ideas—rooted in the wants and needs of your audiences and linked to organizational goals. It is highly productive—and fun.

Breakthrough brainstorming harnesses the strengths, diversity and experiences of the people who participate. It follows a journey of expansive (“divergent”) thinking, exploration (to uncover unexpected solutions) and focused (“convergent”) thinking to prioritize opportunities to try new things.

Breakthrough brainstorming is NOT a time to analyze, evaluate, plan, judge, discuss or edit. Some of the most successful concepts emerge from the most outlandish ideas in a breakthrough brainstorm session—a perfect opportunity to imagine untold possibilities!

People seated at a table writing ideas on a large sheet of paper covering the table.
Photo Credit: Ne-Dah-Ness Greene
Attendees brainstorming at the 2022 Community Creativity Cohort 2 retreat.

Adopting Breakthrough Brainstorming

Preparation is key to leading a productive Breakthrough Brainstorming session.

A sample “how might we…?” question might read like this: “How might we grow the number of donors among our young professionals target audience so that we can cultivate meaningful relationships with more young people as they engage more deeply with our programs?”

To make the most of your Breakthrough Brainstorming, invest a bit of time in advance preparing for a productive (and fun!) session.

  1. 1

    Think strategically and frame things clearly.

    Consider these key questions to clarify your Breakthrough Brainstorming goal:

    • What is the challenge we’re trying to solve? (Or what is the opportunity we’re eager to explore?)
    • Who is the target audience for the solutions/ideas? What do we know about them?
    • What will be different (or better) in the world if one (or more) of our breakthrough ideas comes to life successfully?

    Summarize your goal in the form of a single question that starts with “How might we…?” Here’s a template you can use to frame the challenge (or opportunity) you want to brainstorm around:

    • How might we [solve this challenge] for [this specific audience] so that [this is different or better in the world]?

    This question will help participants contribute ideas that are relevant for the challenge and meaningful for the target audience.

  2. 2

    Identify someone who’d make a great facilitator.

    Great facilitators create and cultivate a safe, open, active, energizing environment where people are inspired to generate bold ideas. They are comfortable introducing and implementing the breakthrough brainstorming grounding guidelines, keeping time, and making sure that things run smoothly.

    Choose a facilitator who can be a clear and inspiring communicator, someone who will inspire active participation among all participants, and who models an openness to all new ideas. This might be someone on your team, and/or a good opportunity to engage a community partner in this role.

  3. 3

    Invite your dream team to participate.

    The right combination of people willing to be open-minded, creative and maybe even silly sometimes will result in more, and often more creative, ideas.

    Consider inviting people:

    • who represent a diverse range of skills, expertise, experience and perspectives, especially those whose backgrounds are different from your own
    • who are not experts in your field
    • who are creative thinkers, open-minded, good listeners, and not afraid to challenge the status quo

    You can lead robust Breakthrough Brainstorming with as few as 5-6 people and up to about 10-12. If you have more than 10-12 people participating in an in-person session, have people work in smaller groups of 3-4 people each until it’s time to sort, cluster and prioritize ideas. Keep in mind that as the group size increases, the number of ideas per participant declines, so prioritize inviting the most relevant people (see tips, above) over more people.

  4. 4

    Set the stage for creative thinking.

    If you’ll be brainstorming in person, choose a space that:

    • is big enough for people to stand and move around
    • offers lots of vertical space
    • bright—with natural light (if possible)
    • ok to fill with tons of sticky notes!
    • accommodates any guests with special needs

    If you’ll be brainstorming together online, make sure to:

    • identify any special needs of your participants to help you choose the right online planning tool
    • enlist the help of a colleague to help with any technical issues on the day, so the facilitator can focus on leading the session
    • provide access to, and encourage participants to log into, your chosen online collaboration tool ahead of the session to make sure they can address any technical questions or other barriers
    • build extra time into the start of your session to make sure everyone can log in and connect online
    • create opportunities during the session for people to step away from the screen and stretch, to help maintain good, creative energy
  5. 5

    Outline your session.

    It’s a good idea to include your facilitator in this step so they have context for your decisions and time to prepare to lead a productive and fun session! A successful Breakthrough Brainstorming includes:

    • A warm and enthusiastic welcome from the facilitator, an introduction of the goals for the day, and, if collaborating online, a little extra time to make sure everyone is navigating the tool comfortably
    • Clear “grounding guidelines” so people feel welcome, know what’s expected of them and are clear about how they can contribute
    • A clear sequence of brainstorming rounds that engage all participants, encourage expansive thinking and explore ideas in unexpected ways
    • An activity to curate the ideas to carry forward from the session
    • Heartfelt thanks from the facilitator

    You’ll find a sample rundown in the next section, which you can adapt as needed for your group.

A person sitting at a table with a laptop and several markers and colored pencils, writing on a piece of paper.
Photo Credit: Ne-Dah-Ness Greene
Writing exercises at the 2022 Community Creativity Cohort 2 retreat.

Breakthrough Brainstorming

It’s go time!

If you’re the facilitator, make sure you get a good night’s sleep, and eat a healthy breakfast—your energy will set the tone for the gathering. A good facilitator will keep everything moving; the time will pass quickly! The pace is designed to keep energy high, limit opportunities to overthink or analyze, and inspire a generous flow of new, creative—and even surprising—ideas.

Below is a sample Breakthrough Brainstorming rundown for a one-hour session. Here’s a detailed version which can also serve as the facilitator’s guide.

  • Welcome, Introductions + Setting the Stage (5 minutes)
  • Grounding Guidelines (1 minute)
  • Warm Ups (6 minutes)
  • Space Launch (Warming up your imagination, getting ready to think big!)
  • Yes, and… (Flexing the creative muscles to practice building on our own and others’ ideas!)
  • Breakthrough Brainstorm Round 1: “10 in 5” (5 minutes)
  • Breakthrough Brainstorm Round 2: “Yes, and…” (10 minutes)
  • Breakthrough Brainstorm Round 3: “Celebrity Takeover” (5 minutes)
  • Optional Breakthrough Brainstorm Bonus Round: “WWYMD?” (5 minutes)
  • Celebrate (1 minute)
  • Sort + Cluster Ideas (15 minutes)
  • Prioritize (5 minutes)
  • Close + Thank (1 minute)

Action Steps

So many great ideas, so little time! Dig deeper into your top ideas to determine which ones are the best ones to carry forward.

Following a Breakthrough Brainstorming session, it’s time to explore the possibilities the new ideas create!

Consider inviting key people from the session, as well as others from your team, to join you in a follow-up discussion. This helps people stay (or get) engaged with the breakthrough ideas, and work as a team to start imagining how they might come to life for the benefit of your target audience. 

Create an Idea Canvas for your highest priority/highest potential ideas. This will help you identify who needs to be involved to carry an idea forward, allows you to dig deeper into which ideas have greatest potential for impact, and helps you determine what action is needed in order to experiment with or implement the idea. Inviting people to create Idea Canvases also can help build enthusiasm and support for ideas from others across the organization.

As a group, agree on a future check-in date (no more than 30 days) to build traction and momentum for the ideas. The brainstorm becomes exponentially more valuable once the ideas are paired with next steps and a fixed time-frame. This is innovation in action!

Try These Tools!

These tools will help you prepare for a session, curate ideas, and turn ideas into action!

  • Breakthrough Brainstorming Session Logistics List

    Whether you’re gathering in person or collaborating online, use this checklist as a starting point to prepare and deploy the details that will help your session run smoothly.

  • Prioritization Grid

    When it’s time to sort and prioritize ideas, invite participants to sort according to which ones will have higher (or lower) impact, alongside their estimation of how easy or difficult it could be to implement those ideas (i.e. how “do-able” is this idea?). To make it easy for participants, you can recreate this grid on a wall or large easel pad.

  • Idea Canvas

    This tool helps teams flesh out individual ideas and identify right-sized next steps for moving an idea forward. Here’s a print version, and an online version to help you begin to move ideas into action.