5 Ways to Kill a Brainstorming Session
Brainstorming is big at most creative organizations today, but in becoming ubiquitous it has lost something. The invitation "let's brainstorm about that" typically leads to a gathering in a conference room where the convener asks for ideas then shoots them down as fast as they come up. And brainstorming sessions have come to resemble any other meeting—veering off topic, sucking up time, and causing impatience or boredom. That's in part because brainstorming has been compressed and made more efficient—killing its real purpose in the process. The whole point of brainstorming is to let creativity emerge and shine. You need to be very careful not to let criticism stifle that creativity. The creative process must be supported, nurtured and embraced wholeheartedly. Want to make sure your team gets the most out of brainstorming in the future? Avoid these five behaviors.
1. Pass judgment or comment.
As ideas begin to flow, you must do everything in your power to let them flow. No one should be allowed to offer any judgment of any idea. The idea-generation phase is about generating ideas, not ranking them. Just let them run like the mighty Amazon. There will be plenty of time to evaluate them later. Even if the person next to you throws out the stupidest idea you've ever heard, let the process continue. The slightest comment or criticism will change the mood in the room, and the group might start to clam up. The objective is to bring ideas to the surface, not to discuss them. The only acceptable comments should be a very quick "wow," "cool," or "sweet."
Also keep in mind: It’s always tempting to lighten up the atmosphere in a meeting, but laughter at the expense of an idea is a fast way to kill it.
2. Tidy up.
You might be the boss, but don't let your inner editor join the session. When you're brainstorming, it doesn't matter where the comma goes in the sentence, or how best to word something. The font choice, color palette, and idea’s original name are irrelevant. Editing is a left-brain activity that is completely separate from idea generation. Keep it that way. First, let the ideas come out; sloppy and uninhibited. You'll have plenty of opportunity to edit later.
Another left-brained tendency to avoid: comparing ideas. Comparing is an insidious form of criticism that needs to be checked at the door with all other left-brain habits. Comparing usually contains an implicit criticism. "That's like the idea Jim had back in '05" sounds harmless enough on the face of it, but think again. Remember Jim? Everyone hated him.
3. Think ahead.
The second an idea hits the whiteboard, you can easily become distracted by thinking about execution. You'll wonder how the idea would come to life. What would it cost? Who would run it? What would the project plan look like? What would the financial implications be? Where would the work take place? When would we begin? Those are great questions for later, but avoid them at this stage. They are your left-brain in all its glory sneaking in and vying for a seat at the table. As important as that kind of thinking may be, it will quickly crush your creativity. Keep it out of the room.
Also remember: Don’t look back. We can always learn a lot from the past, but it can also limit our ability to invent the future. Holding back an idea because you tried it once before and it didn't work out so well is highly limiting. Think how much the world changes every day. An idea today comes into a world with an entirely new set of circumstances, market conditions, technologies and customer tastes. If it didn't work in the past, it may just have been ahead of its time. Or perhaps that idea, when revisited, will lead to a revised version that can carry the day. Every idea is new at this moment, so share every one that you believe has merit.
Fear is the single biggest blocker of creativity. But social fear is pounded into us from childhood on. We learn in school that there is always one right answer and mistakes should be avoided at all cost. You need to release that fear to unshackle your true creative potential. If you're leading the group, emphasize this before you begin.
How can you eliminate fear in your organization? Tell your colleagues that every idea matters and that the whole point of the exercise is to get a lot of ideas on the board. To best create an environment where everyone feels comfortable taking risks and has no fear of embarrassment or negative consequences, set an example. If you as leader aren't afraid to toss out silly, outrageous ideas, you will enable others to release their fears as well, so that their most creative thinking can emerge.
Idea sessions can easily dissolve into wandering and woolgathering. Don't let it happen. An idea might remind someone of a story she just has to tell. Or it might lead to taking on a different creative challenge, or discussing a completely different topic. A right-brain creative state is so rare and so refreshing that its energy and excitement can cause a team to stray. To solve this, keep what I call a parking lot list. When unrelated topics come up, put them on the parking lot list to be discussed another time. This will keep the group focused on the task at hand while still making sure that important concepts are remembered and can get attention later.
How can you keep from wandering? The collective energy of the room can build into a frenzy, unleashing brilliant ideas while everyone has a great time, or it can devolve into yet another boring, BlackBerry-checking, clock-watching drone session. Do everything you can to keep the energy up. High-fives, cheers and positive vibes for all. Don't allow negativity and energy-draining commentary to suck the life from the room.