Brainstorming sessions are often the lifeblood of many corporate innovation efforts. But do they work? Not the way they are typically conducted. Here are five reasons they are typically ineffective, along with some possible solutions:

1. Poorly defined challenge

Most brainstorming sessions start with ideas. Reams of flipchart paper and Post-It notes. But often asking for ideas is a bad idea. We generate a lot suggestions, but very few have potential value or solving important problems. If you ask the wrong question to start your session (or even worse, you aren't solving a specific problem), you will never get the right answer. Most brainstorming sessions do a poor job of thinking through the challenge.

The alternative: Instead of starting brainstorming sessions with idea gathering, get clear on the problem/opportunity you need to address. Only when you have clarity on this, should you move to solution generation. Try this powerful exercise if you want to learn more about the power of better questions - and why we tend to be bad at it.

2. Lack of Diversity

Most brainstorming sessions bring in the same people to each and every session. Usually the room is composed of people who are too close to the issue to be objective, and as a result they don't have new points of view. Innovation only occurs when you have a wide range of perspectives.

The alternative: Make sure you identify others that have tangential perspectives - people from different departments, industries, or disciplines. This will certainly add value.

3. Group Think

When one person throws out a solution, it taints the mindset of everyone else in the room. This causes convergence too early in the process.

The alternative: Instead, have everyone jot down his or her individual responses first. Only after that is done, should you have everyone share their thoughts with the group. This will get the widest range of insights.

4. Single Threading

Most brainstorming sessions are done with a leader at the front and only one person speaking at a time. This slows down the process and leads to "social loafing," where people sit back and let others do the work. In response, some leaders break everyone into smaller groups. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of cross-pollination.

The alternative: To respond to this issue, I developed a technique modeled after the "Speaker's Corner" in London's Hyde Park. With this method, simultaneous conversations take place with participants moving freely from topic to topic as desired. People participate in the conversations that are of greatest interest to them.

5. Innovation Event

Brainstorming is typically treated as an event. Too often it is disconnected from the "reality" of the business and therefore does not convert the ideas into results. If instead you think of the brainstorming session (the event) as the start of a process, you have a better chance of creating value. 

The alternative: Before the meeting, get clear on what you will do after the brainstorming session. Get buy-in early on from the people who will make change happen. When innovation is a process, it is repeatable and predictable.

Brainstorming can be effective if done properly.  Unfortunately most organizations do not take the time to do it right.  Applying the concepts above can move you in the right direction.

Published on: May 9, 2019
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