I used to react to an invitation to a brainstorm like an invitation to a party. Yes, of course I’ll take a break from my real projects and go play with my creative teammates for an hour. Over time, though, I learned that not all brainstorms are created equal. Some are unfocused and confusing, some are stifled and boring. Some are downright aggravating. Here is my list of the most common brainstorming pitfalls and ways to overcome them.
PITFALL 1: Disorganized conversations that don’t generate usable ideas.
Solution: Plan ahead with two bad-ass documents: a brief and an agenda. Your brief should lay out the background, context and goals of the brainstorm. Ideally, you’ll have your brief reviewed and refined by whomever this brainstorm is for, ensuring your brainstorm is solving the right problems. Distribute your brief before your meeting and brainstormers will be prepped to storm on-topic and with focus. A summary version of your agenda can go to your participants. When there are only five minutes for background questions and 20 minutes to generate all of the raw ideas, everyone’s feeling a positive pressure to produce. It’s also easier for you to cut off low-value discussions and push the group forward.
PITFALL 2: Idea trashing from naysayers.
Solution: Request that all participants allow two carefully isolated things to happen: Idea Generation and then Idea Selection and Build-out. Remind them (as often as necessary) that the first X minutes of the meeting are dedicated to coming up with tons of big ideas and the last Y minutes will be dedicated to honing in on the best ideas, making them more realistic and achievable. After Idea Generation is complete and the team has tackled your agenda’s 5-minute speed-voting process, you will enjoy the talents of those naysayers because they will naturally identify the flaws of favorite ideas. Then the team can improve the winning ideas together. You may even see naysayers transform into valuable idea generators when they’re freed of their nit-picking responsibility, knowing the group will be collectively nit-picking later.
PITFALL 3: Domination by the same loud voices and not enough from anyone else.
Solution: Use a variety of brainstorming formats. You will reel in the dominators, and you’ll empower members of the team who have struggled to contribute in the past. For example: Spend 10 minutes silent brainstorming; everyone writes down single ideas on Post-its. Prompt them with intriguing questions (“How could we adapt our best successes to achieve…”) and spicy nudges (“Come up with something illegal! We’ll tone it down later.”). Place people in small groups for 20 minutes to share their Post-its. Even the most aggressive personalities will yield the floor to teammates when they’re in this setting.
PITFALL 4: Same old ideas and worn out brains.
Solution: Kick it up a notch. Invite fresh blood. Your brief will teach outsiders all they need to succeed on a project they aren’t familiar with. Show off your investment and energy. They’ll already know you mean business thanks to your pre-prepared documents. Now just add energy in the meeting — it’s completely contagious. Establish the vibe. Give in and be that guy — bring in candy that matches your project’s brand colors or scatter some cheap project-themed toys around the room. Kindergarten was fun for good reason. Invite your client! You have a well-organized meeting, smart participants and effective management techniques. It will work better than you’d expect.