Monday, April 27, 2009

A Dozen Reasons Your Brainstorm Sessions Don’t Work

At one time or another, you’ve been disappointed by the results of a brainstorm session. We all have. The problem is, what to do about it.

Perhaps you feel that you’ve just never been great at inspiration. Or you don’t feel like your team is all that creative. Perhaps you blame the idea of brainstorming itself. (That’s right, blame the tool. It’s the hammer’s fault you bashed your thumb!)

Brainstorming is a process and a skill and there are some common reasons it may not be working for you. Every time. See if these thoughts don’t break you and your team out of your rut.

1. It’s a problem of “problem definition.”

The first key, if you want better results, is to define your problem better. Too often, teams rush into a brainstorm session without adequate strategic thought. “Quick, the client needs a solution by 3:00” is a recipe for disappointment!

The best solutions are the result of asking the best questions.

Quiz yourself: Are you just after an incremental gain—or do you want to break through and change the rules of the game? If you answer with the latter, then you’re heading the right direction. Go deep. Wide. And long.

Brainstorming is not about small ideas. It’s about generating great, big, bold, scary new ideas. Stuff that’s never been done before. And the better you define the problem, the better you’ll brainstorm the big ideas you need to create fresh new solutions.

2. Forgetting the ground rules.

When you’re trying to break the mold it may seem counterintuitive that you need ground rules. But you do. Try these:

  • Define the problem and set objectives.
  • Give everyone a brief background to digest beforehand to prime the mind.
  • Loosen everyone up and engage them with the subject at the start. Say, you’re brainstorming a new chair design. Have your team spend the first minutes talking about chairs. What they like. What they hate. Cool chairs. Boring chairs. Do something fun. Suspend a chair from the ceiling. Have a chair race. If folks are smiling and laughing and freely talking about the subject, you’ve done it just right.
  • Leave titles at the door. Everyone is equal in a brainstorm session and no one is more expert than another. This goes for the facilitator, as well. The facilitator is there to keep the ideas flowing. Not to be a subject matter expert.
  • Absolutely no judgment or criticism of ideas during the session (If you can have only one rule. This is it!).
  • Building on others’ ideas is encouraged. Highly!
  • Set a time limit.

3. The wrong people. Or too many of ‘em.

All kinds of people can be surprisingly and extraordinarily creative when you manage your brainstorm session right. But someone who cannot set aside negative or judgmental feelings will hurt your progress. If you find yourself with someone who continually tramples ideas, make sure they know the ground rules. And if they still don’t get it, politely un-invite them. They’re not helping you.

So who do you invite? Invite a mix of good thinkers, people you trust to be enthused by the subject matter and people outside your normal sphere of influence. It’s good to create a new mix. People who don’t all know one another or what to expect.

What’s a good, productive number of people with which to brainstorm?

A small handful. Three to five, highly active and energized participants. That’s all you need. Too many people is actually worse than too few.

I recall being invited by the leader of separate client group to a brainstorm session for a new product launch. When I walked in the door there were already more than a dozen people. After a few minutes the brainstorm group mounted up to a total of 35 people. What happened? Fewer than 10 of those people became active contributors. The rest hung back. Not because they didn’t have ideas. I knew many of these people to be strong concept people. No, they hung back because they could. It’s easy to hide or to think others have better ideas when a group is too large. The result: Time wasted. Brain power misplaced. Potentially great ideas lost.

Got more people? Break them into teams. Have them cluster in different spots in the room. Or hold separate sessions with each group. Use them to expand the territory instead of covering the same ground over and over. Use them to build on ideas.

4. The wrong time.

Brainstorming is a high energy activity. So hold them when people have the greatest energy. Not right after lunch or at the end of the day when energy is low.

Keep your brainstorm sessions rather short, too. Think of brainstorming like running a sprint. Or a series of sprints. You want loads of energy and speed right off the gun. But you can’t run at sprint speed for a marathon brainstorm session.

5. The wrong energy.

Negative energy absolutely withers participation and kills ideas. Brainstorm sessions should be relaxed and fun. Like game play. It’s hard to downplay the significance of one negative apple in a brainstorming bunch.

So be positive or go home. Build on ideas or leave them alone.

6. Forgetting to forget what you know.

You’re trying to discover new ideas and breakthrough solutions in a brainstorm. What you know—old ideas, old ways and old solutions—get in the way. So invite all the subject matter experts you like. Just be sure they know the ground rules. No experts! And no, “You can’t do that because…” kind of thinking.

This can be deceptively difficult to do.

Pablo Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

If you’re going to blaze an entirely new trail, you need to free yourselves of what you know. Forget budgets. Forget time constraints. Forget what’s possible. What you’re shooting for is the “impossible.” Don’t let reality get in the way. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.

7. Too few ideas.

Quantity rules! The more ideas, the better. The more unusual or contradictory an idea, the better. Make waves. Encourage wild ideas. Don’t worry about “bad” ideas. Remember no ideas are bad ideas during a brainstorm session. In fact, any idea can be a springboard that gets someone to make a connection to a concept that leads another person to leap ahead to THE big idea.

Striving for quantity also helps focus the team on generating and building ideas—the task at hand—rather than criticizing them. Which keeps everything positive and growing.

8. Judging early.

Criticism makes people hesitant to share their ideas. Think about it. If someone continually knocks your thoughts, how do you feel?

You feel fearful.

You worry that you're going to be criticized. That your ideas don't measure up. So how inclined are you to share new ideas? The simple answer is less. And that's not what we want. We want more. Bigger. Wilder. Better.

There’s a time for judgment. It’s after the brainstorm. Not during! Ever.

9. Being too restrictive.

Another form of judging early. If you narrow your range down, you’ll narrow down your solution set. Brainstorming is not the time to be focused and narrow. It’s a time to be open and receptive.

10. The wrong expectation.

Brainstorm ideas are not finished works. They’re fresh, green, immature.

Someone once suggested that we should think of brainstorm ideas as baby ideas. I love this analogy because you don’t expect the same things from a baby that you do from an adult. Of course, not. You nurture a baby. Foster it and help it to thrive and grow. And so you should with brainstorm ideas. Don’t expect baby ideas to stand up to adult scrutiny. Remember, it’s not good to judge early. Get out there are feed those baby ideas.

11. Stealing the joy of birthing a great, big idea from the team that birthed it.

Two kinds of thievery exist, here. Glory hounds. And Control Freaks.

Brainstorming is a social act of generosity. Once someone develops a glory hound reputation, their teams know it. And suddenly that team becomes cautious with their ideas. Why share your best thoughts when you know so-and-so is going to “steal your idea” and take credit for it? Great brainstormers are not in it for the personal glory.

Control freaks are just as damaging.

They like to take the brainstorm ideas from the team and then go back to their little cube and “work it out.” Here’s a better suggestion. Why not have the team that develops an idea push it further? More about how in our next installment.

12. Stopping at the first good idea when what you need is a great idea.

Good is just plain dangerous. Because it can prevent you from reaching for a great idea.

So try this. Once you’ve generated a bunch of ideas. Throw them out. That’s right. Toss ‘em aside and have the team continue to brainstorm. Tell them there’s good stuff in here, but we’re working for great! Again and again, the best ideas come after everyone gets the initial thoughts out of their system. The first thoughts are usually the expected things. The ones closest to what you know. The ones you may have heard of before. The ones still in charted waters.

So push for greatness. Especially when you have a good idea in hand.

Check back for our next installment, Brainstorming-Part II: Making it Go where we’ll pick up with brainstorming techniques that work and what to do with all those ideas you came up with.

Artwork: Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Guitar, 1922. Oil on canvas. Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne, Switzerland, from Olga's Gallery. Picasso Factory at Horta de Ebro 1909. Drawing, Femme.

Blog content: ©2009 Paul J. Hydzik. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Paul Hydzik grows brand value. As a brand marketer and award-winning creative leader, Paul has more than 15 years of experience driving business success from start-ups to blue chips. His strategic resume covers all aspects of B2B and B2C branding from go-to-market to consumer insight to identity development and all forms of marketing communication.

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