Why brainstorming sessions often don’t produce good ideas — and what to do about it

The idea of brainstorming is so ingrained in most businesses today — especially among marketing and fundraising people — that we pretty much know all the “rules” of a brainstorming session by heart. Like … don’t judge, go for quantity of ideas not quality, set a time limit, get people up and out of their chairs, and so on. Some people even go further by wearing funny hats and passing toys around a conference table.

These various techniques are supposed to produce surprising ideas. But the reality is usually far different. Too many brainstorming sessions are boring and — worse — unproductive time-wasters, with people stifling yawns and glancing at their watches. Be honest — you’ve been there, haven’t you?

But if we all know how to brainstorm, why are these sessions usually so far removed from the free-wheeling, free-association love fests of brilliance and creativity that they’re supposed to be?

A few possible reasons …

• We may know the rules of brainstorming but we often don’t follow them. I’ve attended so-called brainstorming sessions that have gone on for hours, with a “facilitator” standing before the group like a grade school teacher and pointing out the goals and guidelines of the session and subtly showing disapproval when any idea strayed from them.
• Most of the time, people come to brainstorming sessions cold, with inadequate background information or preparation about the problem or the opportunity.
• Work is a competitive situation — much as we try to act as though it isn’t. When someone unleashes a really good idea — maybe THE idea — there’s sometimes a tendency to try and top it … not necessarily to build on it but to try and squash it by changing it. Sometimes an idea that has merit will even get ridiculed. Ego gets in the way, and the good idea can get overlooked.
• You just can’t “operationalize” breakthrough ideas, although many companies try. You can’t say, “We’re brainstorming at 3:30 today!” and expect everybody to just turn it on like they’re flipping a switch. We all try to be so efficient, but ideas often don’t respect our timetables. Naturally, some people may be able to flip a switch and produce some mediocre ideas but probably not the game-changing ones we’re after.
• Some people just aren’t good brainstormers, just like some aren’t good test-takers. That doesn’t mean these folks don’t have ideas. They just have a different style of working. Some people need time to ruminate. Some people may not feel comfortable shouting out an idea in front of a group. Still others might be more visual and need some images to spark their thinking instead of staring at a blank whiteboard. It just depends.

So what to do about it?

It would help simply to acknowledge that the typical brainstorming session isn’t the only way to generate ideas and might not even be the best way.

Beyond that, what about …

• Creating a hybrid situation where people work on developing ideas on their own AND attend a brainstorming session at a different time?
• Having a pre-brainstorming session where you provide background information and allow people some time to digest it? (There’s just no way around doing the homework. It’s essential for creating ideas.)
• Letting people go off-site or do something to break up the routine?
• Letting people separate into smaller groups so they can work with fewer people?
• Making it a contest where the team that generates the most ideas wins a prize?
• Using google and keying in some terms related to the problem and see what comes up?
• Going onto a stock photography site and doing the same to see some different kinds of images?
• Asking for thoughts from a professional network like Linkedin?
• Having people come up with ideas that they know will fail, just to get that whole fear of failure thing out of the way?

What do you think? How can brainstorming be better?

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