Brainstorming to Project Planning 101

By Joe Nash, FI Consulting

FI-Blog-BrainstormingRecently, I had the privilege to lead the facilitation of a brainstorming and project planning session on behalf of a federal government client. As I prepared for the two-day session with 30 people, I reflected on the challenge of how to engage a group of geographically and programmatically diverse participants. People often groan at the idea of a multi-day planning session because of prior unpleasant experiences. Their frustration is understandable. Getting and keeping people engaged on diverse topics over a long period of time is indeed challenging. In this post, I want to lay out one approach I was taught and have used with positive feedback from participants, and also some learnings that will hopefully help you plan better brainstorming and project planning sessions. You will find this technique beneficial and pretty enjoyable for the participants because it is very interactive, ensures that everyone participates and is heard, and is an efficient method for getting all matters out on the table for consideration. I find this approach works well for up to 30 people.

Some upfront guidance:

  • Plan the meeting far enough in advance to allow people to attend
  • Understand the physical constraints of the room you are using
    • Make sure it is big enough to hold the group comfortably
    • Understand the room layout and what tools you have at your disposal
    • This approach calls for using Post-It notes placed on a wall, so you’ll need to confirm that the walls can hold Post-It notes or buy some butcher paper to tape on the wall
    • Have any audio / visual support that you need if you want to show a presentation
  • This is a very interactive session. Everyone will participate, so plan for several breaks throughout the day.
  • Come up with an agenda in advance based on the items later in this blog and send to the participants in advance so they know what to expect
  • Prepare any advanced reading materials for the audience if they need any support for the meeting
  • Get to the meeting location (if you are traveling) in advance (if time permits) and do a dry-run with the meeting facilitators
  • Have professional third-party facilitator(s) to avoid potential shaping of the discussion. Also, facilitators free up Program Managers to offer feedback and input in the meeting as well.
  • Order supplies in advance (Post-It notes, markers, butcher paper, tape, flip-chart paper, etc.) and have a way to carry them to the meeting
  • Bring a separate note taker from the facilitator. This will help during and after the session for pulling together notes.
  • Follow up after meeting with appropriate outputs and files to ensure everyone’s ideas were captured and considered
  • Send a thank you note to all involved, including supervisors, for taking (and allowing) the time to be involved in such a critical planning session

Step-by-step guide to brainstorming and initial project planning

 Step 1: Brainstormingsticky notes

  • Every individual lists every idea, issue, and challenge associated with the particular program on a 3×3 Post-It Note
  • Everyone places their Post-It Note ideas on wall
  • Have note taker capture all individual idea Post-It Notes into an Excel file for future reference

Step 2: Categorizinggroup-notes

  • Half of the group places each idea with other “similar” ideas
  • Same group labels each bucket of ideas and places that bucket name on a larger Post-It Note (3×6)
  • Finally, the other half of group reviews and adjusts first groups’ work (moving Post-It Notes around or re-labeling a group)
  • Have note taker capture all categorizing of individual idea Post-It Notes into an Excel file for future reference

Step 3: Ranking the Benefits and Efforts of Each Category Idea

  • Facilitator asks the entire group to plot the category ideas in a matrix of benefits and efforts (see below)
  • Have note taker capture benefits / efforts matrix plot into an Excel file for future reference

Step 4: Ranking the Risks and Impacts of Each Category Idea

  • Facilitator asks the entire group to plot the category ideas in a matrix of “risks” and “impacts,” demonstrating the potential severity of not addressing each category idea (see right)
  • Have note taker capture risk / impact matrix plot into an Excel file for future reference


Step 5: Prioritize the Category Ideas

  • Based on the Benefits / Efforts and Risk / Impact matrices, rank major category ideas in priority order or high / medium / low
  • Based on priorities, develop detailed action items (as desired) for top priority items
  • Have note taker enter detailed action items into an Excel file for future reference

Step 6: Develop a High-level Project Plantime

  • Develop high-level project plan using the prioritized bucket list
  • Use notional quarterly / monthly deadlines
  • Show responsible parties
  • Have note taker enter high-level project plan into an Excel file for future reference