Surprisingly, modern thinking about brainstorms has changed considerably in the last decade. According to the Harvard Business Review in 2015, “There is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.”
This is exactly why we should use a dual-stream approach to brainstorming. As Alexander Graham Bell said, ‘Preparation is the key to everything’, so here’s our timeless approach to getting new ideas, whether together in person or remote, and making sure that you don’t harm the ‘creative performance’ of your team when the pressure is on.
The best brainstorms begin long before everyone gets on the phone or in the same room, pandemic permitting. First and foremost, it’s important to understand what your goal is – what are you looking to generate an idea for? Similarly, before you restrict your mind with other people’s ideas (in this case, within your research), it’s important to think about the kinds of thing you’d like to do based on prior experience. For example, by thinking about:
– Personal Preferences: What would I like to do more of in this area?
– Past Experiences: When we did this kind of thing before, was there anything that we wanted to explore further?
– Timeliness: Given the times of year or other circumstances, is there anything that springs to mind?
Once you’ve done that, then you should start your solo research in earnest, looking at things like:
– Sector Rivals: What things have competitors or companies in other sectors done that we could take a step further or take inspiration from?
– Broad Industry Context: Have you seen anything in professional press, analyst reports or from influencers that looked interesting and could be inspiring?
Much like a brainstorm, it’s important to jot everything down that springs into your head. Don’t worry if it initially sounds terrible or weird – it might be inspiring to someone else! If you have the time, it’s also good to let these ideas simmer; leave them for a day or so and then come back to your thinking, jotting down anything else that you think of in the interim.
This pre-work is also key because there are several pitfalls to avoid in group sessions.
When you’re in any kind of group session, politics and power come into play. There are three main effects that we’ve seen:
Conformity: People don’t like to stand out. So, if most of the group focuses on one particular area during the session, the minority is less likely to speak out. Preparation minimises this because the process of preparing and ‘simmering’ helps to convince you that your own ideas are valid.
Power Imbalances: If there are very senior or very junior people in the session, the very senior people are likely to speak more and the very junior speak less. A good facilitator can help to overcome this, encouraging everyone to speak, regardless of their level.
Self-consciousness: It’s perfectly natural to feel slightly stupid on a remote brainstorm, particularly when there might be a delay on the line. Again, preparation and the desire to discuss all the ideas you’ve put down can help with this. Similarly, there’s no harm in following up with the brainstorm leader if you can’t squeeze an idea into the conversation – sometimes there are just too many good ideas!
In a perfect world, you’d also have three support staff in your brainstorm: a chairperson, a facilitator and a scribe. Here’s why:
– Chairperson: This person keeps things moving along. They also make sure that good ideas get the attention they deserve and stop discussions that aren’t adding anything.
– Facilitator: Encourages people to talk, offers praise and helps to develop ideas.
– Scribe: Writes down all the ideas!
We’ve seen a few different models of brainstorming used over our time in communications, three of which we’ve listed below. Admittedly, the first two are our favourites. Despite the limiting factors we’ve discussed above, the importance of getting other people’s perspectives on your ideas is incredibly valuable.
The Classic: Everyone comes together and throws ideas around. Make sure to bring sweet treats or caffeine!
Facilitated: Uses a set of prompts – for example, images – and each participant offers an idea inspired by those images relating to the brief.
Separately but Together: The Covid brainstorm! A time slot is set, and everyone brainstorms separately then shares their ideas digitally. This model isn’t vulnerable to power dynamics, but it doesn’t allow participants to riff off each other’s ideas as well as the other two.
Above all, remember that brainstorming is a team sport. Most good ideas aren’t just from one person, they’re from someone else (or lots of people) and involve everyone contributing to an idea and evolving it. So, do listen, evolve ideas, or just reinforce them if you think they’re great! At the same time, do develop other people’s ideas, but also push new ones; keep the quantity going and there may be common themes that emerge between ideas.
It’s also important to remember that the perfect idea may not come up straight away. In fact, there’s usually a lot of dud ideas to get through first. For this reason, don’t hold back, however daft your idea seems; unusual ideas may prompt different ways of thinking and new directions. Even if they don’t work, they might inspire something else. In the same breath, hold back your criticism in a brainstorm, because you might inhibit other ideas from coming out from other team members.
Finally, if you can, be somewhere else – don’t brainstorm where you work. It can be useful to have a laptop or phone with you to search for things online as you talk, but taking yourself into a new setting and avoiding distractions is always helpful.
So, there we go; our top tips for running a brainstorm during (or after) the pandemic. Clearly, you don’t have to take all of our advice to run a good session, but it is important to be aware of the limiting factors, and that there are alternatives to the ‘classic’ model of getting ideas. Above all, the old adage is true: fail to prepare, prepare to fail!
*As almost everyone knows, the word ‘brainstorm’ has historically been seen as offensive. However, according to Epilepsy.org, Epilepsy Action and the National Society for Epilepsy, it’s no longer seen this way. We’ll take their word for it.
Since Alex Osborn’s (the “O” of BBDO) seminal book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948, the default action for any organisation looking to harness their creative power to come up with ideas is to try and do it in a group setting. A brainstorm. The idea that getting a group of individuals together to generate ideas is more effective than an individual has been a well-held assumption, but still the notion that brainstorms don’t work, persists.
I’ll be honest, just the word brainstorm makes me feel a bit sick. The idea of enforced routine of creativity is not something that appeals to me. I dread the thought of someone opening another meeting with the request that we think “outside of the box” and do some “blue sky thinking”.
Behind the clichés and the rhetoric however, is a structure that put in place in the right way, can generate a significant number of ideas. According to the Pauling theory “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”. Linus Pauling is a double Nobel Prize winner, so I guess it’s fair to say he had a couple of good ideas in his life and is worth listening to.
What stands out for me in the Pauling theory is that he implies that in order to have a good idea you need to have lots of bad ones. What I can take from that is that a successful session of idea generation is about quantity not quality and evaluation of those ideas can come later.
There are of course counter arguments to this, with some proponents of the discursive brainstorm model – where ideas should be challenged and argued.
My opinion is that ideas should be challenged and argued, but after the event. I have spent a lot of time arguing the merits of an idea in a brainstorm for it to be ruled out after about 20 minutes discussion. Not very productive at all.
My experience is that the difference between a good brainstorm and a bad one is the people you have in the room. The key is having a good mix of “thinkers” and “builders”. Some people are good at coming up with an idea and some build on that seed of an idea into something else – potentially something better. Have an idea, build on it, make it different, make it better, and move on to the next one.
Not every idea is going to be a good one, but it may well be the stepping-stone to a good idea, which becomes a great idea as people build on it. The lead should encourage building by the thinker and invite others to build on their idea “tell me more about that”, “how can we make that bigger?” “what else can we add into that?” etc.
The best people in brainstorms are those who have a wide range of interests and fields of expertise, they can call on varied experiences and angles of approach that encourage lateral thinking. Surround yourself with different viewpoints and different demographics to ensure you aren’t getting a homogenous viewpoint.
Creating the right environment is also important, one that allows people to feel confident enough to speak up with an idea in the knowledge that they aren’t going to be laughed out or talked down. Going into the room with a flat hierarchy is key to this – job titles shouldn’t mean anything in a brainstorm. The best ideas might come from the unpaid intern and they should be encouraged to speak up without fear.
Here are some good tips to having a successful brainstorm:
Find people you don’t usually work with, so you don’t know how they think. Different people think differently.
Quantity not quality
What Linus Pauling said.
People need to be able to speak without fear of being put down. However, this comes from organisational culture rather than defined brainstorming rules, so think about the wider picture too.
Build up and out
The best ideas are often a combination of builds on an original idea.
Fill the gaps
Silence is the big killer in brainstorms; make sure you have a facilitator who knows when to move on to keep the flow going.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Writing on a post-it note might work for you, but you want people to start visualising and building the idea, so help that process with a visual. A badly drawn sketch with stickmen works equally well.
Tristan Woods-Scawen is an account director at Kennedy Monk. Contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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