People either love brainstorming, or they hate it. There seems to be no inhabitable middle ground when it comes to that type of group work. But, more often than not, those who hate brainstorming have had to live through session after session of forced meetings, with managers who shoot down any idea that doesn’t fit in with what the executive order has already thought up. What other option remains to a bored employee have in that type of a meeting than to try and beat their high score on Angry Birds?

However brainstorming CAN actually be useful – those in charge just have to structure their sessions properly. So if you’re planning on getting everyone in your department together for a little session, remember to:

1. Keep things nice and cozy.

One of the biggest problems with brainstorming sessions is that they are, well, too big. Size matters, and when you stuff a room with fifty people, there just isn’t much impetus for the sole employee to contribute. Even if they have some huge, money saving idea, they’ll keep quiet because there are forty-nine other people to compete with. People will always take the path of least resistance, and the one that is less likely to embarrass them. So when if you’re in management and you’re calling people together, keep things nice and cozy. Divy things up between groups of about five or six people. The employees that are put into these groups can be more personable with one another and, since they can actually talk to one another, they can build on good ideas to make them better.

2. Give everyone some time to think.

Ugh, the “surprise meeting” – is there anything more middle-management than a company wide e-mail, instructing everyone to gather in the conference room for a meeting? The whole idea is born out of some ill-conceived business school notion that spontaneity is the father of great ideas – don’t let your employees think too much about their ideas, or else those ideas may stagnate. Please, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, don’t buy into that. Give everyone some time to think, to jot down a few ideas. A morning before a meeting, a day, a weekend; you don’t want to stress everyone out. Just give them some time to write something down before the ball gets rolling – it will help them be more confident in their ideas, more willing to share, and better equipped to discuss what they do bring into the meeting.

3. It’s okay if you don’t find a solution to the problem.

Stress can kill innovation – lock everyone in a room and say that no one can leave until a problem is solved, and you can bet your bottom dollar that no one will suggest any answer that either hasn’t been brought up already, or has been used before. The best way to end a meeting is with a solution to the problem that inspired the little office get-together, but if no one can find one then those in charge need to be willing to say ‘Okay, well we can always try again later.’ People can only focus for so long, and their minds will fry if they are forced to churn out idea after idea after idea after idea. You can always re-visit a problem after everyone has had some time to recharge.

Just remember to always thank anyone who was willing to take time away from their work to help solve a business-wide problem. Brainstorming can be thankless work, and if people feel like their ideas are worthless, and thus the whole process is pointless, morale is going to stink and nothing will come of the meetings. But if you keep the groups small, and give your staff the breathing room they need to think and re-think an issue, brainstorming can actually be a positive exercise.

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