January 29, 2019

How to brainstorm in a very large group - How Might We

INTRO / SUMMARY
Watch this article as a video

I really love this activity. It seems to always work to generate a broad list of solutions to a problem and get a group excited about moving forward. It is a very reliable way to turn a boring meeting into a productive and enjoyable experience.

Over the years I have done this activity with groups small as 1 to large as 150 people or so. Often it has been with people who have never done this type of an activity before. And it pretty-much always works.  (Provided everyone remains standing during the activity. …more on that later).

I’m certainly not an expert in this, so I’m confident you can run a session like this like this too.

Why another post on Human Centred Design?

A lot of material online covers Human Centred Design (IDEO’s full Design Kit Here), and how to run How Might We sessions.

This post adds to the literature with the specific focus on how to run a session like this for a large group.

Summary - what happens

The big group splits into separate smaller groups in the same room. A prompt is displayed and all the groups generate ideas and write them down and share this with each other in real time.

The prompt is a question that starts How might we…

By the end of the session a number of diverse ideas have been generated. This helps provide the team an overview of potential different ways the problem can be solved.

IMG_0837 - final.jpg
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Part A:  Pre-Event Preparation

1.  Identify the need for a How Might We session.

From my perspective, this tool is pretty versatile and can be used for almost anything. It works well to generate lists of ideas. But it also works well to get people in an organization or team to work together and get united and excited about moving together on a project. Whenever you have either need - actual problems to solve - or the desire to help build teamwork into your organization, the activity works for both.

In particular, I have found it a good activity for groups trying to do strategic planning, operational goal, or company/brand identity.

It works well when there is a specific problem to be solved and a number of different perspectives and solutions are desired. Or when trying to design a specific solution for a product.

This tool also is good for very specific tasks such as generating lists of names or images for a company or character, or brand identity.


2.  Generate a list of How Might We (HMW) Questions

Each prompt is phrased as a How might we… question.  The question prompt is phrased to address a problem that has been identified as one of the challenges you are solving.

There are a whole set of other activities one can do to help ensure they are focusing on the right problems to solve and ask How Might We questions about. Thats outside the scope of this activity. Sometimes a How Might We session may start with the group first identifying problems, then generating the How Might We questions, and then moving on to actually working on brainstorming on the HMW questions.

I’ve found there generally isn’t enough time often to both generate the HMW questions and answer them all in the same session. It is also hard to generate HMW questions in a larger group.

Therefore, in general I find it beneficial to generate the How Might We prompts prior to the the brainstorming session. Especially if it is a larger group.

Some resources on writing “How might we” questions

Good specific examples from the Stanford dSchool [link]

Strategic explanation on how to use HMW statements in Challenge Mapping a new problem [link].

How broad vs narrow HMW questions should be [link]

How might we write better How Might Wes? by Andy Pipes [link]

3. Have a mix of statement types

You likely can go through somewhere between 5 and 7 how might we questions in one session.

It is good to have a mix of different types of prompts. Some more concrete. Some more vague abstract or aspirational.

In general though, put your most concrete and straightforward prompt first. This makes it easy for people to figure out what they are supposed to do. For instance, we started with “How might we make reporting easy”. A pretty straightforward concrete prompt for the group at the OpenMRS Conference last month.


4. Test your How Might We prompts

After generating your How Might We prompts, it is helpful to gather a group of at least 4 people who can test the prompt.

Briefly explain the purpose of the activity, how the activity will run, and your goal of asking them to look at the questions ahead of time to get any feedback on them.

Show each prompt to the small group. And watch their reaction. A good question will generate the small group to start talking about ideas immediately.

A bad question evokes puzzled looks on people’s faces, and too long of a pause before anyone responds.

An average prompt, that should be improved, evokes little reaction in the test group. They seem ‘ok’ with it, but it doesn’t really get anyone particularly interested.

Ask for feedback. Let the group change the wording of the prompts to their liking. Typically just a few words needs to be tweaked for the prompt to have a evoke a much more positive response.

If the full group isn’t large enough to warrant testing of the prompts in a smaller ‘test group’ before the main session, you can put up all the candidate questions at the start of the session and ask the group if the prompts look fine, or if people want to amend them.  

I kind of like keeping the prompts a surprise (provided they’ve been vetted ahead of time), but have zero evidence to back this up, and it likely is a negative in some cases.

5. Find leaders for the actual activity

Confirm with the test participants that they will be ok participating in a 1 minute demo on stage before the event.

Ask that during the actual session the test participants, and anyone else in your organization who is familiar with this process, remember to spread themselves out evenly among the groups. They can help act as leaders within each group during the large event.

6. Room setup

I prefer paper over Post-It sticky notes for the activity.  See the Question section below for further details on why regular paper is better.

If you choose to use paper fo the session as well, you’ll need a flat surface to put the responses on. Generally this means having tables spread around the room that groups of 4-6 people can gather around.

Part B: Running the How Might We session

We put the following steps up on the projector as each was announced. it seemed to work.

Intro: Explain why the activity is being done. How it will be awesome.

1. Stand Up!

I’m not sure what it is about this activity, but it only seems to work if everyone in the group is standing the entire time.

You will have to go out of your way to encourage everyone to stand up at the start, and to remain standing for the entire activity.  If you go about asking this nicely, people play along and it works just fine.

But you do have to stand. I’ve done this a ton of times, and it doesn’t work as well when sitting.

Once one person from the group sits down during the session the magic of the session and the energy in thte room vanishes and productivity plummets.

It likely will be hard at first to get everyone in your organization to stand up for this activity. But its possible.

Once everyone is standing up, they will need to move around to form a group.

[Give the instructions as people do this. Have them stand. Then have them form the group. Don’t go to step 3 until steps 1 and 2 are done]

2.  Find a group of 4-6 people, gather around a table, introduce yourselves

A few comments on group. Who should be in it? Likely a diverse group of people - meaning different skills sets / different divisions of your company / different backgrounds.

Ideally if this is also a team building activity, ask people to find a group of people that don’t know each other.

How big should the group be. I am rather prescriptive about this: 4-6 people per group seems to work best.

Why? It has to do with group cycle times. In general, this activity is likely being done in a large group setting (meaning many small groups) as part of a strategic plan, or problem solving activity, or team building exercise). Many people doing this activity may have never done it before. You want it to be ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’.

The optimal group number is 4 to 6 people, because that ensures that new ideas are almost always being generated and announced. If the group is 3 or less there is too much of a gap in the air between the last idea being said and the next idea. This is because people are busy writing down their next idea.  If the group is 7 or more people have to wait their turn to speak, because someone else is talking.

In a perfect world you almost have a continuous stream of ideas being generated. Without too much gap between speaking and without people having to wait to speak.

Again, you’ll have to help people get into groups of 4-6. Inevitably several groups of 7 to 10 will form. Help them split into two groups of five.

While groups are forming, your ‘leaders’ should have distributed themselves as part of the groups in the room. Nobody knows they are ‘leaders’ or that they have previous experience with the activity. Their job is just to help nudge the group in the right direction if it seems to get off track from the directions. A common set of mistakes people run into is listed at the bottom of this document.


3.  Stay standing around the table

Step three, stay standing around the table.

Ok, people seem to get it by now, its really import that everyone stands for the activity. You won’t have problems with people sitting down from here on in.

4. Tear paper into small pieces. Have a pen.

As you go through the rest of the instructions, give people a job to do, which is generating small pieces of paper to write on.

For a really big group, you don’t want to have to do this yourself. Put the people in the room to work. Distribute sheets of paper out to the groups. Have them tear the sheets into small rectangles to write on.

How big should the pieces be? About the size of a credit card is probably good.


5. Read the prompt

As people are tearing paper, go through the rest of the instructions.

A prompt will be placed up on the projector. It will be phrased as a How Might We statement.

Such as How Might We [insert something relevant to your organization].


6. Come up with ideas

When the prompt is placed on the board, everyone should start to think of ideas on how it can be answered.

Don’t come up with ideas for the prompt that was just on the screen - that was just an example.


7. Write down one idea per piece of paper (word, image, sentence, picture)

When someone has an idea, they should write down the idea - as a word, an image, a sentence, a picture - whatever captures it best onto the small sheet of paper.

One idea per sheet of paper


8. After writing down an idea, say it outloud & place it on the table

Once the idea has been written down, the person should announce it out-loud to the group and then place it on the table in the middle of the group.

Don’t hoard all your ideas and announce them at the end. Announce them after writing each one down.

Place it on the table in a logical place. The ideas may start to naturally group themselves as they are generated, put those ones close to each other during the session.

Don’t create a stack of ideas piled ontop of each other. You want to be able to see everything at once.


9. Build on each other’s contributions

Someone may have on idea, and ideally this sparks you to write down a complementary idea.

If someone comes up with the same idea someone else mentioned, thats natural, no problem.

The goal fo the session is quantity of ideas. And especially different ideas.


10. Collect the papers at the end of each round

You likely will be doing this in a setting where there is not enough table space to run multiple brainstorming prompts.

Therefore, after each prompt have the group collect the responses, and move onto the second prompt.

If you have enough table space, for the second prompt, just move down table to the next available space.

Put the next prompt up, and go at it again.

Rules for brainstorming

Put this list of rules up on the board for everyone to read.

The objective of this activity is quantity not idea evaluation, judgment, or discussion. Therefore this is IDEO’s List of Brainstorming Rules (a copy on page 13 of Chapter 3 of Acumen Human Centered Design Workshop).

1. Defer judgment or praise

2. Go for quantity

3. Encourage wild ideas

4. Build on ideas of others

5. Stay focused on topic

6. One conversation at a time

7. Be visual

Similar to Jazz music, you can build on top of the ideas of the other person.

Or similar to improve, the answer is always, ‘yes, and'…’

1 Minute Demo

To make this obvious, call up the people who tested the questions previously and that you know understand how to do this activity correctly.

Put a demo prompt up on the board, and have the test group work on it for up to 1 minute.

The goal is for the audience to see how prompts are written down one per piece of paper, how people call out their prompt after writing it down, and how the prompts are placed on the table not in a stack, but roughly grouped together as ideas are generated.

Common Questions


How long to spend on each prompt?

How many minutes should people have to brainstorm on each prompt? I really don’t know.

It depends on a lot of variables. If you are doing this as team building activity with a number of groups, you likely want to gauge the energy of the room. If it is obvious people are still generating ideas and in conversation go longer. If people look bored and seem done, end the prompt early.

Its likely reasonable to schedule time at 7 minutes a prompt, knowing you may go somewhere between 5 and 9 minutes.  

If you are running this activity in a smaller group, or with a group that is more focused on the actual problem or solving of a tricky problem, and more experienced with this technique, I favour setting a longer prompt brainstorm time 7 to 10 minutes. You likely will encounter periods of silence. But this is fine. Long as people keep thinking and trying to solve the prompt statement those extra awkward last three minutes are sometimes quite useful.

However, with more novice groups (and when running this with many groups in the same room) that the silence is awkward and people don’t know what to do with it. So in those cases, end early and move onto next prompt.

How many prompts?

Likely target somewhere around 60-70 minutes for the session (including instructions).

You likely can do somewhere between 5 and 7 prompts in one go. I don’t really know whats ideal.

When this activity was done last month at OpenMRS conference, we did six prompts on average between 7 minutes a prompt. With instructions and closing messages the whole thing took between 60-70 minutes.

IDEO recommends to keep the session between 45 minutes to an hour - which is doable if people know the instructions.

Late arrivals? Large groups?

Likely a few people came late to the meeting. Either bring them into an existing group if it is not at the 4-6 person capacity. Or, place them into their own new group, and take someone who has done this activity in another group, and have that person ‘train’ / ‘teach’ the new people what is going on.

Groups of seven and larger will form over time as more people arrive, and you will have to go out of your way to break these into smaller groups. From my experience, it just doesn’t seem to work well when its that large.

Common mistakes

You may need to walk around for first round or two to help people out. Some common misunderstandings include

  • stacking the pieces of paper in a pile, rather then laying them on the table so people can read them
  • generating the questions individually in silence and not sharing them until the end of the session
  • having detailed conversations about the prompts
  • breaking the Rules for Brainstorming
  • sitting down

Does it always work?

If you follow the instructions, the group will walk away from the activity having spoken to each other for over an hour and worked together during this time. In some ways, this achieves the goal of this activity.

To help an organization work better together is a key part of any project. Big problems aren’t solved in a day, and the effect of such an activity on improving team dynamics is some of the most important outcomes of this activity. It also is a good way to ensure everyone in the organization feels heard and part of the process.

(Hence, why I really like this activity for strategic planning, goal setting, organizational identity projects.)

With regards to the actual content and ideas produced, it varies. The process will certainly capture a number of ideas that the organizers of the event would have not thought of themselves. This breath of response is very helpful. It also lets the organizers know what is ‘front of mind’ for the participants in those themes that keep repeating themselves. This is also useful information.

Will your How might we session come up with the killer new idea or profoundly transformational thought?

It depends on many factors. In general, the best sessions and most groundbreaking content seem to be produced when you have a combination of people with (a) very different backgrounds and skillsets, (b) who are quick on their feet, (c) good at generating new ideas, (d) think outside of the box by default, and (d) who work well together.

Anything else?

Figuring out the right order for the prompts is a bit tricky. You may find that there is a ‘logical’ sequence where they build on top of each other. Past problems, current issues, future potential.

One thing to watch out for is that sometimes the answers from the previous prompts get repeated in the subsequent prompts. This is common if the prompts are not different enough from each other.

What Next?

After the session, the organizers collect all the tickets and do something with them.

Generally I may type them all into the computer, and share that list with those who participated.

Or type in the unique ideas into a sheet, or the actionable ones we want to pursue.

For an example of how this information can be shared, see the OpenMRS 2018 Conference Brainstorm Session Summary.

In general when running this activity with multiple groups, there isn’t enough time to share the results of each small group, with the larger group throughout the session. If your organization wants to do this, they can, but perhaps in a different session. The issue I’ve found is that in general most groups of 4-6 come up with a fair bit of overlap with the other groups of 4-6. Therefore, sharing what each group found with each other group at the same time results in a repetitive session that isn’t particularly interesting.

Why no post-it notes?

So why do I not use Post-It (R) Sticky Notes?

1 - they’re overpriced

2 - they stick together and are a pain to pull apart. This makes it very hard to collect all the response at the end of session, and then read through them afterwords to enter them into the computer. Paper stacks nicely. Sticky notes get tangled into a mess.

3 - the table has many advantages.

3.1 - first, people have a surface to write on - the table - and place the papers right in-front of them without having to move around

3.2 - I like the dynamics of having everyone facing each other in the semicircle of a table

3.3 - more people fit around three sides of the table, than looking at a wall. This means that people’s eyes are closer to the small sheets of paper, and therefore it is easier to read the responses.  (note: people only fit around three sides of a table, participants can’t stand on the fourth side because they will be unable to read the responses upside down.)

3.4 - its easier to move ten tickets over with one’s forearm halfway through the activity, to re-organize them, than to have to unstick, and then re-stick 10 sticky-notes on a wall.

3.5 - I’ve often done this in places where there is not enough wall space.

Closing thoughts

Give this activity a try in your organization. Its low risk and has the potential to have high reward.

I hope the Human Centred Design folks don’t find this version of their How Might we process an abomination of their long respected methods. In some ways I’ve morphed a Human Centred Design tool and turned it into a process for icebreaking and teamwork. Don’t get me wrong, It also works for Human Centred Design, but it also has a great benefit in team dynamics that some may underestimate.

Read from the experts themselves: Chapter 3 of IDEO’s Acumen Human Centered Design Workshop

Thanks to: Jennifer for helping run this activity last month with OpenMRS, and her help on developing the How Might We statements and encouraging that they are tested prior to the session.



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