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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Notes for the Facilitator

How to use the brainstorm session as a tool for obtaining participatory group decisions


The "Brainstorm" is a key tool in facilitating group empowerment. This paper discusses some of the reasoning behind the rules and set-up of the brainstorm session. It also shows how it relates to the overall purpose of strengthening or capacity building of low income communities.


The two-page handout on "The Brainstorm" is a sketch – a" how to" recipe – aimed at trainers learning to facilitate brainstorm sessions for capacity increase. It includes no theory or explanation of the principles. This paper is intended to complement that handout, and to raise some of the questions about why the brainstorm session is structured the way it is, and how some of the ground rules contribute to the specific objectives of the brainstorm session and to capacity building in general.

The elements of the brainstorm discussed here include the following:
  • participatory group decisions;
  • the role of the facilitator;
  • the "no-criticism" and "no cross-talk" ground rules;
  • the use of a board or paper on the wall;
  • the content and its order of topics;
  • the "prioritization" process; and
  • the call for organizing and action.

The brainstorm has a potential to be a very powerful tool in reaching the overall goal; strengthening low income communities (sustainable development). It helps in empowering the community, building the capacity of the community to make vital decisions about its own destiny, and playing its rightful role in the democratic processes of the nation and world. Like all tools, this one must be understood by its users, and must be used in the appropriate manner, if it is to do more good than harm.

Creative or Participatory Group Decisions:

The goal of a brainstorm session is to set up an environment for a group, not an individual, to make a decision or set of decisions by the group and for the group as a whole. It reduces dominance by any individual or faction. It enhances participation of all participants, with special pro-active encouragement of participation by those individuals in the group who may not usually participate (for whatever reasons).

The immediate goal of the brainstorm session is not "creativity" as such. Innovative, and non-orthodox solutions to problems are welcomed and encouraged, but the session has not failed if there is no new idea generated. (In the whole mobilization process, the breaking down of ideas and convictions which hinder the strengthening process, and the introduction of ideas new to the group if they contribute to empowerment, are both promoted). Some ideas and convictions may be new to the group, eg that they have a right and duty to make decisions affecting them, that it is not their duty to remain passive, that it is not God's will for them to do nothing, that cultural integrity does not mean hanging on to dysfunctional traditional practices, that they need not passively accept disease, poverty and tyranny. Some ideas may be new to the participating group without actually being creative in the sense of new to the universe.

Participation takes precedence over creativity. Creativity of the group as a whole takes precedence over individual creativity during the brainstorm session.

The intent is to set up a training session that promotes participation in decision making by everyone in the group. The decisions to be made during the session must be important decisions that affect the community as a whole, or the group as a whole. (This is not just a schoolroom learning exercise).

The ground rules that are enforced temporarily during the session support an environment that encourages participation (in decision making) among those who do not usually do so.

The Role of the Facilitator:

The role of the facilitator in a brainstorm session is essential. An unorganized collection of individuals, left alone, would not spontaneously organize to make important group decisions, nor ensure that the inputs to those decisions come from all members, especially those who tend not to participate.

Structure is needed; ie a set of ground rules and an orderly procedure for this process to go as planned. The role of the facilitator first is to ensure that there is structure, and that it is maintained. Then, the facilitator must demonstrate that the decisions come from the participants as a group, not from the facilitator, and not from any faction or individual within the group. This is assisted by the structure, and is a product of the actions taken by the facilitator in drawing the suggestions out of the participants in a group session.

The facilitator needs many skills and experience of leadership. Having these skills, and practising them in mobilizing and organizing community groups, it is important that the facilitator does not misuse those skills for personal goals and individual political gain. The facilitator has a role of leading an unorganized collection of individual participants through a process that moulds and forms them into a decision making group. Those actions of organizing a brainstorm session are "top-down" in that they are introduced by the facilitator, not by the participants, but they are arranged so as to lead that group into making group (bottom-up) decisions.

The "No Criticism" and "No Cross-Talk" Ground Rules:

In a democratic political system, criticism is allowed, indeed it is encouraged, especially criticism by the common people about their trusted leaders, as soon as those leaders may be seen to be straying form the will of the common people. In the structure and set up of the brainstorm, however, overt criticism is suppressed.

Encourage the shy ones.
The facilitator must encourage all suggestions, even the foolish ones. Some participants may call your bluff and deliberately offer a foolish suggestion. No problem. No feedback; no value judgement; just mark them up on the board.

During prioritization (see below), the less useful suggestions are quietly dropped. No harm in their being there, but meanwhile the shy participants were encouraged to participate. After they learned that they would not be held up to public scrutiny, and not expected to immediately defend their suggestion, they were more likely to participate. (The facilitator has set up a safe environment). Overt criticism may make a person feel threatened. In the brainstorm the direct criticism is delayed and defrayed until later when the less useful suggestions are quietly dropped. By this method, the credibility of those suggestions may be suspect, but the credibility of the participant is not questioned.

Cross-talk is conversation and discussion between participants. When one participant makes a suggestion, the facilitator should calmly write it down on the board, not offer any reaction, response or feedback, and not allow any other participant to do so either. This promotes the important conception that the facilitator is non partisan, and is not trying to impose any ideas on the group, but bringing out the choices of the group as a whole.

In ordinary (non brainstorm) sessions, cross talk and discussion are welcomed, but can be dysfunctional in the brainstorm session. They waste precious time; they lead to diversions away from the important business at hand; they take the focus off the group's decision making process; and they tend to reward the more active and less shy members of the group, leaving the quiet ones in the background.

Beyond the brainstorm session itself, the mobilizing aims to encourage more participation from groups and categories of people who may have been systematically excluded from community decision making practices of the past. The mobilizer has done much research on the community and by this time should know much about its make-up.

Often excluded groups and categories of people include: women, some age groups (old, young), disabled (physically, mentally), the poor and weak, reticent individuals (shy and lacking confidence), ethnic and language minorities, illiterates, and other vulnerable and marginalized people. During the call for suggestions, the facilitator individually calls out such people if they have not spontaneously offered a suggestion.

The facilitator reminds the participants that criticism and cross talk are temporary ground rules for the brainstorm session only, and that they are suspended only for its duration; both criticism and cross talk are permitted outside the brainstorm session.

The Use of a Board or Paper on the Wall:

The decision making process (during a brainstorm) is intended to be a group process. The board assists the facilitator in developing the perception that the decision is a group, not an individual, decision.

The "board" used in the handout and elsewhere in this paper, can be many things. At the high tech end of the spectrum it could be an overhead projector, the facilitator using a transparency marker on clear plastic overheads during the process. The most popular, where available, are white boards with dry erase markers. In local schools in isolated rural villages, there may be blackboards (sometimes plywood painted black, not easy to mark) and the facilitator uses chalk to write the participants' suggestions. If nothing else is available, use smooth dirt or sand on the ground, and a stick to mark it.

Where groups are illiterate, pictures and symbols are useful. More organized facilitators who can invest in the material, use sets of photos and drawings that can they can stick onto the board (eg felt pictures stick to felt boards; "felt" is a soft kind of cloth). The mobilizer should be very familiar with the culture of the community. Research has shown that a picture that appears obvious to people in one culture, may be interpreted radically differently by people in another culture.

Using a board and marker is a necessary part of the process; it helps make decisions more objective or "arms length," less associated with particular individuals. The process is not as effective if everything is verbal. When foolish suggestions are marked down but later quietly deleted or overlooked, no one loses face. The re-arranging of suggestions, prioritizing them, is very transparent and public, and takes the focus off the individuals.

For these reasons, the board and marker are essential elements of the structure and process of the brainstorm session.

The Content and its Order of Topics:

Any set of decisions can be chosen. The three presented in this series of modules are related to community projects:

Version One:
  • What do we want?
  • What do we have?
  • How do we use what we have to get what we want?
  • What will happen when we do?

Version Two:
  • Where do we want to go?
  • Where are we?
  • How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?
  • What will happen when we do?

Version Three:
  • What is the problem?
  • Define the goal as the solution to the problem;
  • Refine the goal into a finite set of objectives (SMART);
  • Identify resources and constraints;
  • Generate a set of strategies to use the resources, avoid the constraints and obtain the objectives;
  • Choose the most effective strategy;
  • Decide upon organization (structure, who does what, budget, schedule); and
  • Decide upon monitoring, reporting, evaluation.

The first two versions are the essential four questions of management training. They are really only slightly different ways of saying the same thing. See The Four Key Questions of Management Training. The third version is that same set of four key questions expanded into a common format for a project design (often used also as a project proposal). See Project Design.

It is important to have some content, or set of topics, about which the group will make decisions. It will not achieve our purposes if the group is brought together and told well just come up with a bunch of creative decisions. They will ask, "Decisions about what?"

In each of the three versions above, each bulleted line is a decision making session. The facilitator poses the question, then asks for suggestions from the participants (point out the ground rules again if needed). As each participant makes a suggestion, no matter how foolish or irrelevant, the facilitator writes it up on the board. Writing them up on the board puts them at arms length from each participant who has made a suggestion, making it easier to manipulate them.

All three of the versions listed here lead to action, or at least lead to the possibility of the facilitator being in a position to organize the group for action. This is a way that this "management training" goes beyond skill transfer and includes organizing and mobilizing. See: Training of Mobilizers.

The "Prioritization" Process:

At each stage of the session, after all suggestions are made, and the facilitator has marked them on the board, prioritization decisions must be made.

The facilitator first asks the group as a whole to help re-arrange the suggestions. Where suggestions appear to be just different ways of saying the same thing, they are grouped, or the repetitions deleted. Where suggestions are similar, they are grouped. Then they are ranked, with the most important ones being shifted to the top. The facilitator asks the group to help decide which ones have priority ("having priority" minimizes the notion that one idea is "better" than another, that one participant's ideas are better than others, helping save face for all who contributed ideas that will later be quietly dropped).

It is important to note that, at this stage, it is useful to have short memories. The author of each decision is not mentioned. This helps to minimize anyone seeing any one suggestion as the personal property of any one participant. When the foolish ones are quietly shifted to the bottom, no one feels hurt or bullied; the focus is on the prioritizing, and the choice of the most important suggestion.

This requires skill by the facilitator, who builds up that skill through more experience. It is helpful for the facilitator to remind the group that the suggestions came from them. When the group, in the session, agrees on an order of priority, the facilitator then reminds them again that the suggestions came from the group (not from the facilitator). The facilitator takes a strong leadership role in setting up the structure, the process (the ground rules, and how the session is conducted), but also makes it very clear that the content (of the group decision-making process) does, and must, come from the participants.

The Call for Organizing and Action:

The brainstorm, although a type of training session, is not aimed at training about group decision making. It is a process of group decision making.

In question three of the two versions of the four key questions listed above, the question "How" is asked. In the third version, the second from the last question (decide upon organization) is another way of asking "How?" How the action is to be done (objectives achieved) is a choice or decision for the group.

If this were in a school classroom or training institute, perhaps the participants would simply state or write down their advice about how to organize the achieving of their priority goal. In this management session for strengthening the community or community group, in contrast, the purpose is to actually set up and organize the group so that it can carry out its objectives. Remember, "This is training for action."

The output of the session will be that the group has not only chosen its priority objectives, but has become organized in such a way as to be able to achieve them.


The two-page handout describing the brainstorm looks quite simple, and the ground rules and facilitator's procedures appear straight forward and simple, although a bit dictatorial. The reasoning behind them is the opposite of dictatorial, but is to empower a group to begin making its own decisions as a group, and the sociological considerations lying behind them are far from simple. We hope that the above explanations make those considerations a little more clear.


A Brainstorm Session:

Brainstorm Session

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.10.24

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