Brainstorming: Friend or Foe?

We’ve all been there. The boss asks, “Who has a good idea?” A few vocal people speak up and dominate the discussion for most of the meeting, while the rest of the participants remain mostly quiet. Ideas are evaluated and rejected as soon as they are proposed. The meeting ends without an action plan, and nothing really happens afterwards. That’s a recipe for a disastrous and frustrating brainstorming session.

The practice of brainstorming has come under criticism lately, and rightly so. However, the reason why brainstorming sessions can be so ineffective is often due to problems with execution, not necessarily because of some flaw with the concept of ideation itself. There must be a better way to tame the brainstorming beast to be a friend and not a foe.

After all, innovation is a team sport. When many brains are focused on the same clearly defined problem, there is great creative power.
Martin Murphy lists at least five ways to better brainstorming sessions in his great book, "No More Pointless Meetings: Breakthrough Sessions That Will Revolutionize the Way You Work:"

  • The highest ranking person should not lead the meeting (the boss can’t facilitate and participate at the same time)
  • Content should be separated from process (facilitator does not insert himself or herself into content discusssions)
  • No evaluation is allowed during the ideation stage (evaluation comes later)
  • Pay attention to information gaps (what we don’t know is just as important as what we do know)
  • Never conclude a meeting without an action plan (the meeting isn’t over until the action plan is complete)

Brainstorming events are most effective for groups of 20 or less. For more than 20 people, consider an IdeaJam online ideation event.

In order to produce more and better ideas, I prefer that participants write out their ideas first, reading aloud the best ones for the entire group. This technique allows for the most participation and avoids the meeting being taken over by a vocal few.

In an article entitled, “25 Rules for a Perfect Brainstorm,” Gijs van Wulfen lists several tips for better brainstorming sessions, including:

  • Use a facilitator
  • Invite a variety of particants, including those who are closest to the subject, decision makers, and outside voices
  • Silence all mobile devices. No calls or texting allowed.
  • Choose a comfortable, well-lit environment, away from the office
  • Plan a variety of idea generation techniques.
  • Have fun

By following these and other best practices, brainstorming can become a friend and not a foe, and an indispensable tool in your innovation toolkit!

25 Rules for a Perfect Brainstorm | Innovation Management