In the past year, I've facilitated over 20 brainstorms and innovation sessions. It's not part of my job description, per se, but when it was discovered that I know how to get creative ideas from groups of people, the invitations rolled in.
For me, it's worth the time. I get exposure to the business problems of nearly all of our clients--from Pandora, to Taco Bell, Target, to Volkswagen--and I get to hone a passion: being able to rapidly identify the seeds of a 'good idea'.
But I've also encountered resistance. Too many people have experienced a bad brainstorm. Too many bosses have used the time to push their own agenda. Too many quiet thinkers were overruled by the loudest voice in the room, and too many times nothing meaningful happened after the session concluded.
It's no wonder so many people (and researchers too) believe we're better off developing ideas on our own.
If you hate brainstorms, you're probably making these four common mistakes.
1. You believe brainstorms can be run on the fly
They can, but quality plummets. As a rule of thumb, I like to spend 2-3 days preparing for a brainstorm. I take this time to understand the client and the business problems we're trying to tackle. I also look at our user base or the audience we're trying to reach with our ideas. Then I craft a series of individual and group exercises that will guide participants through creatively finding solutions to the problem at hand. In other words, each brainstorm is subtly different and devising the right structure takes time.
2. You believe the purpose of a brainstorm is to generate ideas.
It's not. The purpose of a brainstorm is to generate thought-starters, or 'seeds'. Expecting that you can walk out of a 90-minute session with a stack of good ideas is bogus. The majority of ideas generated are rubbish (incidentally, this holds true for brainstorming on your own). But there are always a few that make you think "a-ha, that's interesting, there might be something there". Those are the thought-starters that are worth pursuing.
3. You believe that once the session is over, you're done.
Not true. This is the single biggest mistake I see people make: they don't assign someone, or a small group of people, to take the thought starters and develop them into good ideas. During brainstorms I use a clustering technique to group ideas on-the-fly into similar themes. After the brainstorm you need to document these clusters, mull over them, run them through any guardrails (cost, time, feasibility etc), and ultimately develop fully-formed ideas that you can present back to the larger group. This process takes around a week and is often overlooked.
4. You believe you'll get to better ideas on your own
Maybe. But think about it like this: if we free ourselves from wanting to identify 'the solution' during a brainstorm, then we can be open to accepting 'free thought-starters' from a diverse range of people. At their best, brainstorms open us to new possibilities we wouldn't have thought of on our own. They are a way of kick-starting our process and giving the person who is ultimately responsible for developing the ideas some creative fodder in a very short amount of time. Sounds pretty good to me.
Whenever I run a brainstorm, there are always a few people who resist, and that's ok. But with the right structure and preparation, brainstorms work. They expose us to diverse way of approaching problems and ultimately help us to generate a broader range of ideas faster than going it alone.