Why Brainstorming Sessions Flop – And 8 Ways to Make Them Fly

If you think brainstorming sessions are a waste of time, you're right…when they're not run properly…which is most of the time.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Only a couple of people are talking and the rest of the group are standing around looking at the floor, staying schtum.
  • John from engineering is bickering with Dave from marketing about “why that idea won't work”.
  • Conversations like rabbit warrens that lead nowhere.
  • Long “I wish I was anywhere else but here” silences.
  • Big talk fests with not much to show at the end of them.

Unfortunately, brainstorming has become one of those corporate jargon words that's flung around with mindless abandon quicker than you can say “think outside the box”.

Here are some of the most common mistakes people make when running a brainstorming session:

  • Focusing on quality not quantity. Yep, you heard me. Too often, people think brainstorming is all about coming up with the best idea. Actually, it's all about generating the most ideas. The more the better.
  • Discussing the merits (or lack of) each idea as they come up, instead of separating the idea generation phase from the 'sorting out' phase. This is mixing up right brain and left brain activity and can stop the creative process just when it’s getting started.
  • Allowing several people to dominate the process and not harnessing the ideas from all members of the group.

N.B. Forgetting to consider the needs of your introverts and not adapting the idea generation process to suit them, can lead to a nasty little decision-making baddie, called anchoring. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that occurs when we rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor"). You’ll get anchoring in brainstorming when you focus too deeply on that first (or dominant) idea and don’t fully explore other ideas that emerge later.

  • Not doing anything with the ideas once you've identified them. Neglecting to assign specific 'next steps' from the session just leads to a frustrating talk fest and a waste of time.
  • Not letting the session go on for long enough. Or letting it go on for too long.
  • Being vague and waffly about the objective of the session or posing the wrong question to kickstart the session in the first place.

As you can see, it’s not enough to merely declare, “let’s brainstorm that idea.” There are Brainstorming Rules of Engagement you should follow, if your brainstorming session is to fly, not crash and burn.

But fear not my friend. Follow these tips and watch your next brainstorming session take off like a Lorde album.

  1. Get clear upfront about the exact question you’re asking and the problem you want to solve. Give people context and a very clear question to focus on. Be concise and to the point and exclude any information other than the challenge itself. Use starters like, “How can we…” Example, “How can we reach our target audience if they don’t have access to the internet?”
  1. Write down the criteria for judging which ideas best solve your problem (4-5). Position them as “it should be…” as in “it should be under $5”, “it should be in line with our company values”, “it should be legal”.
  1. Give yourselves a time limit. 20-30 minutes seems to work well in my experience, but sometimes a shorter timeframe can constrain you in a good way. Or give an idea limit – 50 or 100 ideas.
  1. Get people to individually come up with some ideas before sharing them with the rest of the group. You could do this by posing the question before the session and get them to come ready with their ideas, or give time at the beginning for people to individually write down their ideas before sharing them. Post-it notes are great for this.
  1. Generate and share ideas. Go crazy. The only rules here are:
  • no idea is a bad idea
  • the more ideas the better and
  • no discussion of the merits of the ideas (or lack thereof)
  • build on each other’s ideas, go whacky, come up with the idea that would get you fired…you get the picture. Remember, absolutely no discussion or criticism.
  1. Once the time is up, get the team to put Post-it notes or ticks beside their three favourite ideas. You’ll quickly get an idea of the most popular ideas. You could also reserve a spot for the most crazy or far-fetched idea and decide to build or work on that later.
  1. Now go back to your predetermined criteria for success and apply them to the top three ideas. Give each idea a rank out of five for each of the criteria you’re assessing it against. Discuss, rank, and decide on which idea fits the success criteria the best.
  1. Finally, keep a record of all your ideas and decide the one next step from the brainstorming session you’ll take. “Who is going to do what as a result of the brainstorming session and by when?”

Brainstorming can be a fantastic way to generate solutions to problems, unleash the collective creativity of the group and build motivation and excitement. So don’t give up on the brainstorm train – just make sure you avoid those traps. What are your tips for running a great brainstorming session? I'd love to hear them.

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