Avoid the traps of brainstorming and turn your meetings into focused, productive, strategic hotbeds of creativity

If the same people who work with the same problems everyday meet and discuss these problems using the same language and procedures the outcome is always predictable. Sameness breeds more sameness. Seeing the world with old eyes only helps produce old ideas.
—Arthur VanGundy, PhD

Why do people hate brainstorming so much? Seven reasons:

  1. Lack of preparation. You can’t just call a meeting and ask people to brainstorm without any preparation.
  2. Lack of focus. Proceeding with a poorly defined topic.
  3. Judging every idea as it is put forward.
  4. Letting a few participants dominate the discussion.
  5. Lack of structure. Creativity without structure produces a formless mess.
  6. Fear of being wrong or stupid
  7. Brainstorming done badly by unskilled facilitators.

Foundational rules of group brainstorming

Alex F Osborn, an advertising executive (and the O in BBDO) invented brainstorming in the 40s. He devised four basic rules intended to reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity of the group:

  1. Focus on quantity: The greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  2. Withhold criticism: By suspending judgment until after the idea generation phase, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas. Withholding criticism only applies to the ideation phase of brainstorming. Criticism is crucial in the evaluation phase following  idea generation.
  3. Encourage wild ideas: Wild ideas make people laugh, and laughter stimulates creative thinking.
  4. Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas may be combined to create better ideas.

These four rules are a good start, but brainstorming is only one small part of the innovation process. Brainstorming will fail if you don’t provide structure and focus. Brainstorming DOES work if you create structure and context for focused, directed, strategic, creative thinking.

Instil Ideation ground rules to bring focus to brainstorming

  1. Ideation begins before you even have a brainstorming session. Creativity comes from a blend of individual and group idea generation. Give people time to think about the challenge at least a week before your brainstorming session, so they have time to incubate ideas on their own. (Give them time to reflect on ideas and improve on them, after brainstorming as well.)
    • Host your brainstorming session using a skilled facilitator and play by Osborn’s rules.
    • Encourage a mind-set of questioning, and challenging assumptions. Brainstorm as many ideas as possible to serve the identified needs of your end-users. Ask questions like “What if…?” “What else…?” and “In what ways can we…?” Record all ideas put forward by the group and make them visible.
    • Embrace the principles of improvisational theatre: Refrain from sarcasm and pre-judging others. Build on the ideas of others, think in terms of ‘yes and’ rather than ‘yes but;’ make your partners look good, listen as well as talk, play team-win, let go of the need to control a situation, lead through a common vision, and celebrate small wins. This will help you establish an atmosphere of fun, humor, spontaneity, and playfulness.If your culture is one of fear, brainstorming won’t work, so make it safe for people to generate ideas, without the worry of being ridiculed.
    • Research background information and gather data on customers, the marketplace, and competition. Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users. Collect stories about what works, and what drives people crazy.
    • Choose the right people for your project. Break out of silos, and include people from diverse backgrounds, as well as your customers (internal and external) to generate ideas from multiple disciplines and perspectives.
  2. Define the objective/challenge, and determine what will make the project successful. Hint: Focus on what would add value for your customer. Draw up a specific problem or opportunity statement, which describes what you are trying to achieve.
  3. Frame opportunity areas. Don’t just focus on problems. Focus on the outcome you want to achieve. As David Cooperrider, one of the originators of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), states, “The seeds of change are planted in the very first questions we ask.
  4. Use a variety of ideation techniques —not just brainstorming — to spark ideas, Try Visual Thinking  semantic intuition question storming and brainwriting to appeal to the diverse thinking styles of your participants.. Allow between 10  and 20 minutes for each technique, depending on the discussion and the energy of the group.
  5. Review your objectives, and select the most promising ideas. Does this idea add value to your customers?
  6. Evaluate your ideas, based on criteria such as feasibility, desirability, and market timing. This is the time to critique, and debate ideas.
  7. Prototype. Combine, expand, and refine ideas in the form of models or sketches. Present a selection of ideas to the client, get feedback, revise and make a decision about what to implement. Michael Schrage, research fellow at MIT, says, “Effective prototyping may be the most valuable core competence an innovative organization can have.” Reactions to your prototype, inform your innovation. “Innovation is about good new ideas that customers will pay a premium to adopt and use!”
  8. Formulate an action plan using SMART goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Assign tasks and accountability. It’s very important to make a commitment to take action on the group’s best ideas to build on positive energy and engagement while moving forward.

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See also:

How to quit stalling and get started on your creative project

Who is Bringing You Hot Ideas and How are You Responding?