Another Brainstorming

What do you do when the email message lands in your inbox, inviting you to the latest departmental brainstorming meeting? Do you grin or do you groan?

If it makes you groan just to think about it, you’re like a lot of people. Brainstorming sessions can feel like a waste of time, and don’t always generate new ideas, which can make them feel like a useless activity.

It’s too bad because brainstorming can have so many benefits beyond the primary purpose of coming up with new ideas. If it’s a productive meeting, it can give the participants a real sense of accomplishment and group ownership of an idea, which can only enhance the sense of team – much moreso than a rigged teambuilding event. If the session if lively and humorous, the laughter and silliness reduces stress and creates a good working climate. And if well facilitated, the ideas that come out of a brainstorming meeting can be radical and innovative. We’ve witnessed this first hand.

If you want to restore your colleagues’ faith in brainstorming, here’s how:

Start from a very specific question. This is the great paradox. It’s much harder to come up with ideas for a general problem than it is for a challenge that’s more narrowly defined. “What ideas do we have for fundraising” will likely yield fewer innovative ideas than “How to inspire people to donate every year?” (And putting the problem in the form of a “how to” question also helps invite more responses.)

Be tenacious about quantity. The objective of a brainstorming is just that: a shower of ideas. Too often we have a few ideas and as soon as one is mildly interesting, we jump on it and debate its feasibility. There’s no getting around the maths of ideas: a good way to have great ideas is to have lots of them.

Don’t shoot down bad ideas. Hidden in the banal, boring and bizarre ideas there is a nugget of something that, if given room to breathe, could be a new idea or could trigger an idea in someone else who sees your idea from another perspective. Or, if simply evacuated from your brain by shouting it out, gives liberty to other thoughts or ideas to emerge. Holding back on an idea because it might look stupid is a disservice to the group. You’re not being smart, you’re being selfish.

Give uncertain ideas a chance. Try putting a star by the worst ideas, and giving each an earnest 10 minutes of creative attention to see if there’s a way to transform them into something inspiring and possibly feasible. Everyone has to agree to give it their best shot at survival. You’d be surprised at the results. Like a neglected child, once given care and attention, an off-keeled idea can thrive.

Facilitate the meetings. A productive brainstorming session works best when there is someone leading it who is focused on the process. When people rally around an idea too early, he’ll watch for signs of groupthink and table it, temporarily: “There’s a lot of potential I that idea, but what if we were forbidden to do it, what other approaches might we take?” If people get stuck in their habitual thinking, she’ll suggest a detour to stretch the group’s imagination. If groupthink is prevailing, a facilitator will use a technique that gives people a chance to generate ideas individually – so new gems can be developed without getting stepped on, and everyone’s ideas can be heard.

Use sparingly. Not every problem deserves a brainstorming session. Save a meeting like this for a challenge that really requires group brainpower, and prepare thoroughly for the session so it’s well facilitated and worth people’s time.

If you’re smart about not going overboard on brainstorming sessions, and using these meetings at the right time in the right way, then maybe when it’s time for “another brainstorming” you’ll get fewer groans and more people saying, “Great, what time?”

Know further: A few tips on how to run effective brainstorming meetings here, here and here. You can brainstorm without groupthink. And for those who rail against it, here’s a reasonable defense of brainstorming.