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Mining for Program Ideas

Use tried-and-true brainstorming to program a year's worth of fun for members.

Think of the programs you offer as frosting on a cake. Although a cake is still delicious without frosting, many people would agree it tastes much better with it. The programs you offer enhance the flavor of your business beyond just selling memberships or personal training sessions.

Programs help members stay interested and motivated. The more engaged members are, the greater the likelihood they will remain members in the long term. This is true of your personal training clients as well. The more variety you can offer, the more loyal they will be. Their customer loyalty helps your business thrive and remain profitable. How do you keep the programming prizewinning? You take advantage of the brain trust—otherwise known as your staff.

Brainstorm or Bust

In 1941, Alex Osborn created the concept of brainstorming. The premise behind a brainstorming session is to come up with as many ideas as possible without editing them. You’ve probably participated in many brainstorming sessions, but were they done right? Osborn developed a list of four essential rules for an effective brainstorming session:

  1. Withhold any criticisms or judgments on ideas until an appropriate time.
  2. Allow free thinking. The crazier the idea, the better! It’s easier to tame a crazy idea than to crazy up a dull one.
  3. Generate lots of ideas. The more ideas you come up with, the greater the likelihood that one of them will be a true gem.
  4. Allow others to make suggestions on how ideas can be enhanced. If someone wants to expand on a concept, encourage it.

There is a law of thirds associated with Osborn’s brainstorming model:

  • The first third of all ideas produced will be the expected. These are generally ideas that people have heard of or acted on before.
  • The second third of a brainstorming session produces ideas that begin to stretch the boundaries. They still might be ideas people have heard before, but perhaps they are modified in a new way or take a different approach.
  • The last third is where all the magical ideas lie, waiting to be uncovered. At this point in a brainstorming session you will find truly creative and innovative ideas—ideas that have never been thought of before.

Brainstorming Secrets

The secret to brainstorming is to not stop. Keep pushing past the stage where people think they have run out of things to say. Ask questions to keep stimulating new thoughts. In a brainstorming session everyone will be excited and offer lots of suggestions initially. The first third of the ideas flow rapidly. People draw on their memories and experiences of the past. Let’s say you want to offer a new and intense athletic conditioning class on your schedule, and you ask your staff to come up with a catchy title. During the first third you will hear ideas like Total Body Workout, Full Body Blast or Athletic Conditioning for Athletes. These are names the staff have heard before. Let them get these out in the open and then keep digging.

At some point the ideas will stop coming or be slow to form. Your team may start to become frustrated and think that they have run out of things to say. They may show discomfort by shifting in their seats, doodling or staring into space. Keep probing. You are now going to uncover the second third of your ideas. Somewhat novel ideas will begin to surface. Although they won’t come quickly, they will come. The titles will start to be a bit more creative but will still be versions of what the team has already come up with; for example, FBW—Full Body Workout or Blast Conditioning—A Total Body Workout. While the new versions are interesting, you still need to keep probing to come up with a truly unique and memorable title.

As you continue to dig deeper, you will uncover the best ideas. In the last third, people have to use their creativity and imagination to squeeze out more suggestions. The ideas may seem crazy or somewhat humorous, but they will also be truly innovative. When your staff members really use their inventiveness and imagination, completely different names will emerge, names like TBA—Total Body Annihilator, ACC—Athletic Conditioning Carnage or RIP Athlete Conditioning Program—Relentless, Intense, Powerful.

Most brainstorming sessions end when people stop talking—as they struggle to think of something new. It’s a human tendency to want to move on at that point. We are uncomfortable with silence, so we seek to fill it. If you are facilitating a session, it is tempting to switch to another subject just to ease the discomfort. Why not endure the silence and keep probing your group for more ideas? Ask questions like these:

  • How else might we go about solving this issue?
  • Who else might be involved?
  • What else haven’t we thought of?

Keep probing, and use the power of “else” to keep the ideas flowing.

Take the Critic’s Hat Off

When you ask people to provide ideas, avoid the temptation to edit their suggestions. For example, while brainstorming ways to save money one of your sales associates puts forward the idea of charging members for paper towels. This idea appears a bit far-fetched. How would you track paper towel usage? Members would probably complain about having to pay for paper towels. Paper towel dispensers don’t take money, so how would you collect it? If people didn’t have money to pay for a paper towel, how would they dry their hands? How would you explain why you are charging for paper towels?

It does seem like there are a lot of obstacles to this idea. It would be tempting to dismiss it and squash any chance of further investigation into how it could work. But this idea might lead to another, more feasible suggestion. Avoid the temptation to reject an idea just because all you see are the obstacles.

Build Trust

When you ask for input from others, there must be a climate of trust. There truly are no “bad” ideas. Some ideas seem to work better, but every idea is worth exploring. If people can’t comfortably say what they are thinking for fear of how others will react, there’s no way they will feel creative. Create a trusting, safe environment so that people want to share what’s on their minds, even if what they suggest is totally off the wall. Some of the best ideas are the ones that seem improbable and wacky at first.

For example, I once had a staff member suggest a program in which dog owners and their dogs would work out together in an indoor class. While this was an interesting suggestion, logistically it would have been very difficult to organize for a number of reasons. I was impressed by her creativity, and although we couldn’t use her suggestion of a dog and owner program inside the facility, we were able to offer a different version outside, which was hugely successful.

Don’t be afraid to push beyond your comfort zone. Allow your creativity and imagination to flow. Brainstorm your way to wacky and crazy ideas, and you will cook up some amazing programs.

Strategies for Success

In order for you and your team to succeed in creating innovative programs, you need to push beyond your comfort zone, take risks and maybe even be a kid again. This is the true path to creativity. Begin the process by learning how to set the stage for creativity to flourish. Here are a few examples of how you can start new program ideas bubbling:

  • Get out of the office or gym and visit other facilities.
  • Talk to people about what they think is the next hot trend or what they are doing outside the facility for fitness and fun.
  • Search different facilities’ websites to see what they’re offering.
  • Research what facilities in other countries are doing.
  • Watch television, and pay attention to which shows are popular. Sometimes you can find programming ideas that mimic what is being shown on television. Think The Biggest Loser, and you get the idea.
  • Read a variety of magazines and books. They don’t all have to be fitness industry related. Sometimes something you read can stimulate an idea.
  • Create a programming “mastermind group” to share ideas.
  • Network with other industry professionals, or even professionals in other fields. Some of my best educational programming has come from other industries.
  • Dare to be silly. Be a kid again, and think of things you used to do before you grew up. Perhaps there is a programming idea just waiting to be reborn.
Donna Hutchinson

Donna Hutchinson owns On The Edge Fitness Educators. Based in North Vancouver, British Columbia, she is a fitness business coach and author of How-To Guide to Starting Your Own Personal Training Business. In 2007, she was nominated for the Women of Excellence Award and the Business Person of the Year Award. Find out more at www.edgefit.ca.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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