The Cohort newsletter: How to lead better brainstorms

December 13, 2018

Programming note: Poynter closes briefly in December, so this newsletter will resume after the first of the year. I hope you enjoy the holidays.

It’s that time of the year where we ask ourselves: What do we want to make next year?

This typically leads to pulling people together in a room to brainstorm what this content could look like. Brainstorms can be magical — or they can be a complete bust. I’ve been to hundreds in my career, and they are definitely not all created equal.

So I asked some smart women in journalism to share their tips on how to lead a productive brainstorming session.

Valerie Ouellet, CBC News’ senior data journalist in Toronto

Work to stay creative. I keep a long list of inspiring projects I can always come back to when looking for fresh concepts. I make it a point to attend tech, coding and artificial intelligence events not geared at journalists a few times a year. As a data journalist, it’s really important for me to keep up with new methodologies and new ways to visualize data.    

Invite the right people to your brainstorming meeting. This makes all the difference between a half-baked concept and a solid plan of action. I make it a point to invite both those who will execute the project (developers, graphic artists, journalists, producers) and those who will sign-off on it (editor, manager). That way, everyone is on the same page from the start and knows what is doable  and what isn’t. Sometimes, I have these great big pie in the sky ideas that, realistically, couldn’t work for our website. And our developer is there to explain why. Many times, our developer is able to address technical, back-end questions, and suggest great tools I hadn’t even thought of. And that person’s boss is there to see how valuable their input is to the project — and then sign-off to give them time to do their best work.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar, independent consultant and organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media

Setting the tone at the start of a brainstorming session is key. If you can share the brainstorm topic and goals ahead of time, you’ll have a much better chance of getting participation from the introverts in the room — they’ll be able to reflect on what they’d like to share. I like to start brainstorming sessions by reading aloud these seven tips for brainstorming from IDEO, and I make sure to jump in and refocus everyone when needed to make sure the conversation stays on track.

If you can, try and host brainstorm sessions in different rooms from where your daily editorial meetings take place — a new environment can help spark fresh ideas. Don’t be afraid to use a timer. It might seem counterintuitive, but people tend to be more creative when they are operating under time or topic constraints. Last but not least, end your meeting with next steps! There’s nothing worse than a super fruitful brainstorm session that ultimately leads nowhere.

Ariel Zirulnick, lead for the Membership in News Fund at the Membership Puzzle Project

Prepare a GoogleDoc for the brainstorm before you even put it on people’s calendars. That doc should include the purpose of the brainstorm, the intended outcome, and a place for people to drop ideas. Make sure to put a link to that document (with editing access!) into the calendar hold so participants can add their ideas at any time. There’s a good chance some of the participants will have some ideas right away, and this way you don’t risk losing them by the time the brainstorm session comes around.

Luisa Ortiz Pérez, CEO and founder at

Respect dissent and antagonism; they are the extra spice you need to ideate and iterate effectively.

For optimal feedback in ideation sessions you should have different people with different points of view present —individuals who can discuss and express contrasting views. Dissent is never a problem. What is a problem is people taking opinions personally — feeling hurt by what others say or don’t say.  Focus on the challenge you need to solve and overcome biases so that everyone can feel included and have enough space to speak assertively. Introverts take longer to give their opinions; make time for people to be able to provide more feedback afterwards. You will be surprised.

Every feedback session should be moderated with non-violence and inclusion in mind, noting micro-aggressions, calling on mansplaining and identifying destructive behaviors that alienate team members (women, LGBT, POC, young and elderly, disabled). The key is to learn to listen to your team and make sure everyone is able to speak their mind.

Links Worth Reading

Do Your Homework

It’s a popular time of year for vacations. How can you use your OOO message to grow your relationships in the newsroom? There are two things that are important to me: 1. Share a bit of your personality. I usually have a line about what I’m doing, and I try to make it conversational, like “I’m in Missouri smothering my nieces and nephew with love” or “I’ll be back on Monday, likely with a sunburn.” 2. Set boundaries for communication. Are you checking email? Do you prefer for people to call you with urgent matters? Are you off the grid completely? Be super clear about your communication expectations while you are out of the office and when people can expect to hear back from you. Ask someone to be your point of contact while you’re gone, and then include them in your OOO message.

Focus on the Work

As part of a 16-month investigation, NJ Advance Media filed more than 500 public records requests and collected more than 72,000 police use-of-force reports to build the most comprehensive statewide database of police force ever made public in the United States.

Carla Astudillo designed and built the database where you can search every municipal police department in New Jersey. When they analyzed the data, they found that 10 percent of the New Jersey officers accounted for 38 percent of all uses of force, and a black person was more than three times more likely to face police force than someone who is white.

“I’ve built plenty of databases and made many interactive graphics before, but not ones of this magnitude and with that much level of detail,” she said. “So it was very exciting that my editors had such faith in me, but also a little scary. I knew it would be a challenge, and I’d have to push myself. I feel like I pulled it off and learned so much in the process.”

Poynter’s Kristen Hare interviewed the team in this profile for Poynter.