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The five stages of an effective brainstorm

It can be tough to bridge the gap between generating moonshot ideas and executing on tactical solutions. Read on for our tips on how to prepare, run, and follow up on a brainstorm.

Last week, we shared how our PM team uses FigJam

Inside Figma: How our product management team uses FigJam

At Config 2021, Figma’s virtual design conference, we announced FigJam, our new whiteboarding space. Long before we launched FigJam in beta, teams across Figma had been using it for everything from user research to Maker Week projects. Here, Product Manager Emily Lin shares how she and the product management team at Figma use FigJam for everything from brainstorms to retrospectives, along with templates to get started.

for every aspect of their team’s process, from idea to retrospective. FigJam was built as a space for teams to ideate together, so we wanted to dive a bit deeper into the earliest stage of collaboration: brainstorming. Product Marketing Manager Wayne Ng spoke to Cristen Torrey on the research team and Andrea Helmbolt on the growth marketing team to get their tips on running and facilitating an effective brainstorm.

If you’re looking to get quick feedback and ideas from your team, you can easily hop into a FigJam file and start jamming. But sometimes you need to facilitate a broader brainstorm—with more people, structure, and time—to solve a bigger problem.

At their best, brainstorms feel both creative and productive—participants have the space to share moonshot ideas without judgment, and ideally something tactical and tangible comes out of the time together. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to sit through a brainstorm that doesn’t go anywhere.

Watch the tutorial on how to use FigJam for brainstorms, and read on for tips on how to get started.

1. Prepare and plan ahead

Everyone knows the feelings of leaving a meeting thinking, “Why was I even invited? That could and should have been an email.” The best way to avoid that is to diligently prepare for it beforehand—brainstorms aren’t just about the activity itself, they're about what you do before and after you’ve generated ideas. This checklist can get you started:

  • Set the context: Make sure everyone knows why they were invited and how they can best contribute. A quick Slack message or notes in the calendar invite will do the trick.
  • Share reading materials: Send a pre-read, brief, or a Figma file in advance so participants can learn more and get aligned ahead of time.
  • Organize pre-meetings: Preview your ideas with your collaborators and get their feedback. This allows you to get a head-start on addressing their concerns and, more importantly, make them feel like they're a part of the process. While a quick Slack message will often suffice, Andrea notes that pre-meetings with different stakeholders can be helpful: “Sometimes the meeting before the meeting can have a space, if used sparingly.”

2. Make introductions and manage expectations

Facilitators play a crucial role in creating a positive environment in which teammates feel open and included. Here are a few things you can do to get everyone excited about the brainstorm and ready to participate:

  • Start with an icebreaker: Get the group’s creative juices flowing with an activity: animal drawing or making collaborator cards allow for quick introductions. Cristen says it’s really about creating “a generative, creative mindset right from the start.”
  • Set the tone: Co-create rules of engagement so everyone feels open and included.
  • Set the tone: Co-create rules of engagement so everyone feels open and included. For half-day research workshops, Cristen starts with a quick discussion about the group’s expectations. Is it ok to be on Slack? Or do we expect everyone’s full attention? She said shared agreements are the way to go.
  • Manage expectations: Be upfront about the goal of the brainstorm. While having too many great ideas is a good problem to have, be clear and say, “We’re not going to use all the ideas,” Andrea says.
Make introductions by filling out these collaborators cards: draw in yourself or use it to frame a profile photo

3. Generate ideas

Rather than reinventing the wheel before every brainstorm, Cristen suggests using templates like this activity or this simpler brainstorming template to easily get started. She likes to think of templates as “recipes” that you can adjust according to what you have and what you’re looking to do.

A (playful) example of the Figma team using a brainstorming template

Once you’ve set up your brainstorm, here are some ways to keep everyone on track:

  • Lower the barrier to entry: Establish a starting point so the team isn’t intimidated by a blank canvas. This could be a prompt beginning with “How might we…” or starting small with an exercise. In a brainstorm where participants are prompted to sketch out UI patterns, Andrea often asks participants to draw a circle, square, and triangle. She then reminds them that if they can draw these simple shapes, they can definitely participate in the brainstorm.
  • Find a north star: Create a shared understanding of what you’re doing in the brainstorm and what you expect after the fact. That can be as simple as a statement like “We want to solve for X and come away with Y.” Visualizing the end goal will focus the team and make sure they know how their work will contribute.
  • Reward wild ideas: Prepare a small, silly prize to keep things fun and engaging. Andrea has gifted stickers, selfie sticks, and gift cards to a local coffee shop for the person with the wildest moonshot idea.

4. Share artifacts and outcomes

Andrea says the number one reason why some people avoid brainstorms is that it’s hard to go from the generative idea phase to the tactical next steps. Diverging and coming up with as many ideas as possible is one thing, but it’s important to converge and hone in on the right ideas to pursue.

These steps can get you started:

  • Dig deeper: Ask questions and push on each other’s suggestions. As Andrea says, you can discuss and refine ideas together: “You don’t have to take the idea at face value.”
  • Assess ideas against outcomes: Evaluate each idea and see how it maps to the north star you created at the beginning of the session. With this Impact vs. Effort template, you can quickly prioritize the most impactful projects.
  • Assign owners: Be clear on next steps, starting with who owns what. It is much easier to move things forward if there are DRIs for each part of the workstream.
This template, by James Norton, is a helpful starting point for choosing and prioritizing projects

5. Follow up with the team

Following a brainstorm in FigJam, Andrea says that consolidating and synthesizing input is key. Someone should be able to go back to the file a few weeks after the brainstorm and see where you ended up.

In addition to cleaning up your file, spend time communicating results and next steps with the broader team:

  • Establish a shared understanding: Take the time to make sure everyone is aligned. Whether it’s five minutes at the end of the brainstorm or a separate follow-up meeting, making sure everyone is on the same page should be top of mind. As Cristen says, “If one person is not on the bus, you figure out how to bring them back on.”
  • Create a visual artifact: Map the ideas you plan to execute on. When you’re ready to develop a project plan, you can use a Gantt chart, or anchor them an existing framework such as a 2x2 matrix or user journey.
  • Share outcomes: Circulate the outcome of the brainstorm with participants, and anyone else on the team who needs visibility. Follow-up notes can go a long way in keeping everyone on the same page.

Whatever your goals, Cristen and Andrea recommend leaning on templates. As Cristen says, “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” Sometimes, you don’t even need a synchronous brainstorm at all. For certain projects, you can just hop into a FigJam file and start jamming.

Learn more about how to use FigJam for brainstorms and check out all of the templates on the Figma Community.

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