Successful Moderation of Brainstorming Meetings
I think the game development community has done a pretty good job of sharing resources and ideas and tips and tricks on effective brainstorming. However, it’s one thing to tease out of your brain all the fantastic and creative ideas you could ever ask for; getting the same thing out of a group of people in meeting-form is a slightly different animal.
Have you ever been in a brainstorming meeting where people sort of sit around and spit out ideas, but by the end of it, no one is sure if anything was really accomplished, and you have the uneasy sensation of having just poured a bunch of creativity into a black hole? I hate that feeling! Brainstorming meetings should not yield that feeling, they should produce a bunch of really awesome and useful ideas for the problem at hand, and everyone should leave feeling like they have accomplished a great feat, and made strides in whatever the project is.
I’ve had some success with moderating good brainstorming meetings that end with that feeling so I’m just going to walk through my usual process. Hopefully there are tips in here that are easy to adapt to your personal meeting style. So, come, dear reader, and let us walk through How Lisa Prepares For and Runs a Brainstorming Meeting.
Understanding Your Role
First off, it’s important to understand what you are doing when you initiate one of these meetings. Leading the meeting does not mean that you are first in line to present your brilliant ideas on the matter to a group of listeners. Instead, your job as moderator is to draw the brilliant ideas out of your team, the correct brilliant ideas, the ones that will solve the problem at hand. This involves a bit of a balancing act: If your meeting structure is too rigid, it could stifle creative idea generation. But if the meeting is too free and formless, you are at risk of that uneasy feeling of ideas being churned out and then lost to the nether.
Let’s say it’s early in pre-production on a project, and you want to meet with your team to brainstorm mechanics to complement the core mechanic you’ve been kicking around so far. Or maybe your mechanics are solid and you’re meeting to hash out a story idea. Or maybe you have an opportunity to make a completely new IP from scratch and you want to kick around the possibilities. Before launching right into brainstorming, a few preparations are in order.
Choosing a Meeting Space
The most important consideration for your meeting space is to have a means of writing down the ideas as they come out, so that the whole team can see them at once. Giant whiteboards, giant sheets of paper that can be taped on the wall, or a projector if you are the typing sort all work fine for this.
For this early-stage-in-the-project example, I’d carve out a nice chunk of several hours to devote to the brainstorming. You need enough time to get the idea ball rolling with some time leftover to review and plot next steps. This will always vary - I’ve been a part of all-day design charettes to plot the course of an entire project, or 30-minute sessions to brainstorm a solution to a very particular problem - but the important thing is that your teammates are clear on what to expect. Don’t just whip up the Outlook reminder and be done with it until the day of the meeting. If it’s going to be a 3 hour brainstorming meeting, communicate to your team so they can prepare themselves for the marathon and get their brains in the right place for it.
It’s a bit like inviting a group of friends for an evening of Arkham Horror (an epic board game that can run from 3 to 5 hours for a single game) - if you invite them over to “play a board game”, you’ll likely end up with a group of baffled and exhausted people who are antsy an hour into the thing. But if you tell them to prepare for this board game as though they were preparing for an evening of D&D, their minds will be in a much better place for a potential 5 hour board game experience. This is, of course, assuming your friends are as nerdy as I am.
Who to Invite
This is trickier than it appears. If you’re on pre-production on a project, chances are you’re already working with a small group and you’d just invite them all to brainstorm and be done with it. But don’t stop there! Remember, you are orchestrating these people in such a way to maximize brilliant idea output, and often the combination of who is bouncing around the ideas with who will affect that flow. Perhaps there’s someone else in the company who’s not on the project who has had noticeable enthusiasm about the idea - invite them! Maybe there’s a person in your company who sets everyone at ease when they’re in the room, an affective hub, so get them in on it.
I’d also say it’s a good idea to get someone in on the meeting who thinks differently than you or your team. Not saying haul in a nay-sayer, but if there’s someone who always comes at matters from a perspective that you rarely consider, perhaps someone who makes you uncomfortable in this way such that you’d naturally be apt to leave them out of such a gathering, bring them in too. That person is an ingredient that we often leave out of our brainstorming meetings because it’s easy to do, but they can be a catalyst for molding a bunch of good ideas into really useful and relevant ones.
As for people to avoid including, watch out for those who dominate an entire room by their mere presence. You don’t want the idea output to clamp shut on your team during the meeting because there is someone in the room that makes them nervous to spout off potentially ridiculous ideas. You want the atmosphere of the meeting to be playful and maybe even slightly on the silly side, so your team should feel free and at ease with each other.
What? Yes! I recommend having toys at any brainstorming meeting. If I had my druthers, I would have toyboxes in every meeting room to unceremoniously dump on the table at the start of any meeting. Barring that, chances are that your game studio is littered with toys at every desk, and people usually are willing to lend them for a meeting. For the last brainstorming meeting I conducted, I wandered around the office beforehand with a big picnic basket, asking for donations. By the time the meeting rolled around, I had a sizeable pile of playthings that were toyed with and used to illustrate points all throughout the meeting.
So why toys? Well, I like having toys around during brainstorming for two reasons. There’s already material out there I’m sure about how having toys around promotes creativity and all that hoojaz (it is handy if someone can grab an action figure and puppet them about to illustrate an idea). The other reason is that having a pile of toys on the table feels ridiculous and silly, and people in the room tend to be more likely to treat the situation as play or a game, and less likely to try and prove their coolness by only sharing what they think are the most impressive ideas. This is a good thing, as the more comfortable people are with not holding back and spouting an idea that may be completely ridiculous, the more likely you are to get out the really good ones.
Choose a Meeting Structure
Freedom and playfullness make a great atmosphere for brainstorming, but if there is too much freedom, then you can get that black hole feeling of throwing ideas into the nether and not accomplishing anything. This feeling by itself is enough to put a damper on your team’s creativity, so you need to corral the meeting in some structure. Not too rigid of course, but enough that your team feels like the meeting is going somewhere, and not just 3 hours of brain dump. Here’s a few ideas that I’ve used with success in the past.
The idea here is that you come into the meeting with several related springboard questions or scenarios, present them all to the team at the beginning of the meeting, and devote a period of time to brainstorm off of each springboard. This method helps structure the time of the meeting, and helps periodically reset your team’s thinking as you move on to the next springboard. Springboarding can also serve as working in an icebreaker if your brainstorming meeting participants may not be familiar with one another. In my graduate school project on what would later become Get In Line Entertainment, we held a big design charette in the very beginning of the project using springboards. Our first two springboards were “best experience standing in line” and “worst experience standing in line.” This let the meeting participants get to know each other a little bit through the sharing of their stories, and at the same time started some useful threads in the brainstorming process (“problems with standing in line to solve” and “good things about standing in line to take advantage of”).
This is one of Jesse Schell’s lenses, and it’s a personal favorite of mine on structuring brainstorming. Use the categories of mechanics, technology, story and aesthetics when coming up with ideas.
It’s a general enough structure to not be too stifling, and it helps create reset moments during the meeting (you’ve been hammering on mechanics for awhile but let’s shift gears and talk about aesthetics) and it’s a great way of laying out ideas so that your team can see and draw connections between ideas of different categories.
And Then What Happened
This is actually an improv game that really helps out if you have places where you are stumped, or if you have great ideas for the beginning and end of an experience but a cloudy middle, or if you have really strong ideas for the outcome of a mechanic (how you want the player to feel) but no clear ideas yet on the steps or actions to get the player there.
It’s as simple as it sounds, you draw up on the board the steps you have strong ideas for, pick a place to begin, and then decide “and then what happens” for every individual moment after the beginning until you get to the clear-idea step. This game is great for when you feel like the team is churning out lots of great meta-ideas, but that if you stopped the meeting there you’d wind up with a bunch of cloudy feeling ideas with no substance and no clear next steps. Narrowing it down like this can bring the team’s brain down to the nitty gritty what-button-is-the-player-actually-pressing-right-now steps, and since the meta idea that they were all excited about is the goal, then they are more driven to churn out good practical ideas to get there. This is also a handy game for filling in the gaps for story brainstorming, especially if you have a great idea for a story twist, but haven’t given much thought on how to get there.
Whatever way you decide to structure the meeting (and there are many more possibilities than what I’ve listed above), I’ve found it useful to divide the overall meeting time up into at least three periods.
- “No noes allowed,” “Yes, and” only period. This is the “anything goes” time, when any idea is accepted, and no naysaying is allowed, even at the most ridiculous or clearly out-of-scope ideas.
- Review time, where you go over what the team has churned out in the last section and think about what’s practical and doable. This is where you let risk mitigation and “that probably won’t work because...” comments from your team come out.
- Next steps. I always make sure to leave at least 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to wrap up and make at least one decision, even if that decision is just “we’re going to start with idea X” and everything else is still on the table. Usually this goes something like “okay, we’ve come up with these ideas and reviewed the feasible ones, what’s the very next thing we’re going to do with these after this meeting?” It often ends up that we say we’re going to prototype x, y, and z ideas to start. Giving a sense of closure to your meeting is important, because you don’t want people fretting about unclosed loops of ideas when they leave.
During The Meeting
So now that you have everything prepared for your meeting and a structure of some sort in place, time to kick it off and moderate! Here’s what you’ll be doing as the moderator during the actual meeting.
In graduate school, my professor suggested that the person writing stuff down during a brainstorming meeting shouldn’t also be the person talking the most. This is to prevent someone dominating the conversation and using their powers as marker-holder to highlight their own agendas, so it doesn’t turn into one person lecturing their ideas to everyone else. However, I think it is just as detrimental for the writer to be a person who never speaks. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone is quietly writing up the notes in a corner, and the point comes where everyone is completely ignoring that person and just talking with one another, while the writer scrambles to keep up with the ideas? We don’t want that either, for the sake of the poor writer, but also because it can create the situation where your team is more focused on getting their own ideas out instead of listening to one another.
While you shouldn’t be dominating the conversation as the writer, you should definitely be leading it, so that all of the eyes in the room remain focused on you and what is being written. Don’t be afraid to say “hold on hold on!” to make sure you get the current idea written down so you don’t miss the next one, and make sure no one is sitting with their backs to where the writing is going down if you can help it. This really isn’t about keeping everyone’s focus on you, it’s about keeping their focus on the ideas, so people don’t get caught up in “when do I get to talk next,” that they forget about everyone else’s contributions. If they have to wait a moment before speaking while you catch up on writing the last idea, they are more likely to be staring at all the team’s ideas written so far, perhaps making new connections in the brief moment of stillness where they aren’t waiting to pounce on the next pause in conversation to take it over.
On Your Participation
So, I have a super-power that I take for granted. I have the ability to fully participate in brainstorming and also write down all the ideas at the same time. I’ve always assumed this was completely normal, but I’ve had people tell me on multiple occasions that this is actually really really hard to do. If I figure out how this works, I’ll write a whole other article on simultaneous moderation and participation. In the meantime, I’d say focus more on the moderating part so that your team is freed up to not have to think about it. Just remember that it is important to maintain leadership through the meeting, so you don’t end up frantically running about catching ideas with a butterfly net to keep them from slipping into the black hole.
Respond to People
As the designer must observe the playtester, watching for those non-vocalized signs of confusion or excitement or surprise, so you too much watch your team during the brainstorming. Watch for a comment that might excite people, and push to riff on that idea. Watch for confusion on faces, and push to clarify the idea at hand (even if you understand it completely!) If you find your team bouncing ideas down a very deep path at the expense of breadth, such that you fear you may spend too much time on it, coax their brains back out. I sometimes do this by finding and pointing out a connection to another idea up on the board.
Do not tolerate interrupters! It shuts down idea generation in those interrupted, though sometimes people don’t even realize that they are interrupting, they just get excited. I remember a brainstorming session in grad school with an interrupter, and I threatened to obtain a Taboo buzzer and buzz him every time he interrupted someone! It was a silly threat and there was much laughter, but he checked himself for the rest of the meeting (and, as it turned out, every meeting I ever had with him after that). Do not be afraid to get a taboo buzzer. Put a spin of silliness on it.
How do you know if you’ve had a successful meeting when the time has run out? I judge this based off the feeling in the room. Your team should feel the tiredness of mental exertion, but it should be the good tired. Like the tiredness you feel after a good physical workout. There should be a feeling of having accomplished something, like it actually really took that whole 3 hours to get where you wound up, not that you just did something until you ran out of time. You should feel like you’ve just closed a hundred bugs! You want the team to feel excited about what they came up with, and ready to move on.
Tying things up
So, success! The meeting is over, your team generated a ton of useful, relevant, and amazing ideas, and you all feel like you really made progress in your project. As everyone goes back to their respective day-to-day work, there are still a few things left to do as moderator to finish things up.
Capture the results
I do this in two steps. One, I take a photo of the board as written, for those people on the team with strong spatial memories. These are the people who might think later “what was the idea on the middle left side of the board underneath the squiggly diagram? I remember that one being good...” Two, I type up all the ideas and then sort them by prevalence that emerged during the meeting, highlighting all of the big ideas that everyone got excited about up at the top, but still not leaving off the chance one-mention-only ideas that ended up not being as relevant. They just get sorted to the bottom.
Send them Out
I usually don’t send this compilation to the team right away, instead I give it a few days for the brainstorming to dip back down into the backs of peoples’ minds. I of course have no data to back this up, but I get the feeling that if you let all that stuff sink back down and simmer in the subconscious for a bit, and then send out the compilation of the meeting results, it’ll drag the ideas back up to the surface with a fresh coat of clarity, and people will see much more quickly the ideas that are really relevant and exciting, and will be quicker to clip out the ones that won’t work out. The waiting ends up saving time, which is a bit counter intuitive, but it’s true, I promise!
Moderating brainstorming meetings is really all about good orchestration of people. As moderator it’s your responsibility to create an environment that feels safe and playful to get those great ideas out of your team, but also to maintain a structure and keep those ideas from getting sucked away into the nether. As with most things in life, this sort of wrangling gets easier with practice. So go forth and moderate! And, perhaps just as importantly, get other people some practice with hosting brainstorming meetings. Moderating these meetings is a different kind of work altogether than doing actual brainstorming, so you want to be sure you don’t miss out on being a brainstormer just because you happen to be good at running the meetings.