Now almost a year into his post-presidential life, Barack Obama has been canvassing around his network of powerful and influential friends for the paths and themes that will define his Obama Foundation.

In an official summit held for the charitable body, the former US President invited 500 individuals who have made particularly distinctive marks in their fields to throw in as many ideas as they could, to provide the Foundation with a wide array of options for how it can change people’s lives.

As reported by Chicago media outlet WTTW, Obama told his delegates: “This is a big brainstorming session. This is a big hack-a-thon. This is an experiment in us trying to have a collective conversation, which we will try to shape and direct so that it’s useful to you – but you are my co-collaborator, you are Michelle’s co-collaborator in creating what ultimately the Obama Foundation will become.”

It certainly sounds like an exciting event to have been part of – and Obama’s invitation resonates with the world of business and enterprise, in which any firm routinely needs a large supply of ideas from its staff to define what it is going to do next.

What can leaders do to ensure that idea generation and brainstorming sessions maintain their fertility – and how can they keep the process fresh so that team members are always eager to put their ideas forward?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “Leaders often think that gathering people in a room with a flipchart and a bunch of marker pens will deliver an amazing output full of ideas. And, of course, that doesn’t happen. The important thing about ideas is that they need to have significance – and need to be followed up. How many so-called brainstorming or hackathon-type sessions have we been to where the ideas are just scrunched up and thrown in the bin afterwards? Even taking photographs of the colourful flipchart scrawls and mind-maps with your mobile phone isn’t the same as actually evaluating them and feeding back, and saying, ‘This was a great idea,’ or ‘This wasn’t quite so helpful or useful.’ Really, the crux of this is that ideas must be anchored to the organisation’s underlying strategy.”

James points out: “the main problem here is that not enough time is given to these processes. Staff need time to think through their ideas, expand upon them, evaluate them and consider the practicalities that would be required for their implementation. It is also important that employees have the time to really stay with an idea and nurture it while they, and perhaps their wider teams, may not yet know exactly what it is, or where it could lead. That sense of experimentation, and the instinctive feeling that an employee may be on to something, is valuable, and must be sustained.

“A welcoming climate also helps: an unwritten rule of brainstorming – or ‘mindshowering’, as some prefer to call it now – is that nothing is ever ruled out. But we all know that the power dynamics in organisations ensure that this is never really the case. Leaders often dismiss other people’s ideas too quickly, and in a way that’s too out of hand.”

He adds: “Japanese firms handled this the right way in the 1980s when they introduced suggestion boxes. But it wasn’t just that they brought that particular system in – the key was that they took it so seriously. They invested huge amounts of time – and large numbers of people – in the process of rounding up all the thoughts that employees had contributed, made sure that every slip of paper was read and then worked out how the most useful ideas could be utilised.

“Now, that’s not quite the same as building the kind of innovation culture that I was talking about, as it’s a slightly more hierarchical method. But the whole notion that if you do have ideas, they are listened to, really galvanises motivation and engagement.”

For further thoughts on leadership’s role in stimulating creativity, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of Barack Obama courtesy of Paolo Bona, via Shutterstock