Every manager wants active brainstorming meetings where all team members are active, sharing their insights and creativity to solve problems. More often than not, though, the reality is a quiet group of people politely agreeing to a loud co-worker’s average thoughts.
Brainstorming meetings can become slow and painful in the wrong setting. In some cases, they can actively hinder creative thought.
So how are companies supposed to come up with ideas without this creative outlet? Is it possible to break out of this sluggish process? To answer these questions, you have to understand why brainstorming hurts your company without active guidance and planning.
Why Is Brainstorming Broken?
Before you can start fixing the brainstorming process, you have to understand why it is broken. Brainstorming on its own isn’t the problem, but the environment that we do it in often leads to poor results.
Brainstorming Hinders Creativity
Claire Karjalainen, content marketing strategy manager at InVision, theorizes that group brainstorming actually makes your team less creative because best players end up compromising their ideas or lowering their creativity to match their peers.
Called “regressing to the mean,” employees might limit their ideas to ones that might seem socially acceptable to the group — a psychological survival instinct that prevents people from standing out from the herd. Instead of having several creative ideas from multiple perspectives, your team ends up with a handful of average ideas that anyone could agree with.
Brainstorming Intimidates Introverted Colleagues
Encouraging timid colleagues to speak up is another problem with the traditional brainstorming model, Bridget de Maine writes at Collective Hub. While your company might employ a “safe space for ideas,” or “non-critical idea environment,” to bring quieter employees out of their shells and maintain a positive work culture, you’re actually fostering mediocre ideas.
De Maine cites research by Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth who found that ideas from groups allowed to criticize others were 20 percent more creative. This isn’t to say that quiet people have bad ideas, but rather that creating too safe of an environment prevents employees from pushing each other to flesh out their ideas and do better.
Interestingly, brainstorming itself isn’t always the problem, but rather the people doing it. Along with the shy introvert or low-level intern who feels too intimidated to speak, there are other people who can derail a brainstorming session. Digital marketing strategist Guerric de Ternay writes that four types of employees get in the way of brainstorming:
The over-enthusiast who constantly challenges participants to “think outside the box”
The passive participant who contributes very little
The pessimist who thinks every idea is impossible
The stubborn team member who disregards ideas of others but refuses to back down from their own.
Each harms the creative process in their own way and leaves companies with middle-of-the-road ideas.
Leaders Don’t Always Pick Creative Ideas
Even if the team does come up with creative ideas, they might not be selected by management.
Jeffrey Baumgartner, cartoonist and keynote speaker says leaders who moderate brainstorming sessions are often risk-averse by nature. The most creative idea will not necessarily be chosen. On the contrary, senior leadership and management often pick the safest idea that offers minimal risk to them or the company, regardless of creative effort.
All of these issues combined tend to dilute brainstorming sessions and make it impossible for your team to embrace creativity and come up with the best ideas possible.
So, Why Do We Still Brainstorm?
If brainstorming has all of these drawbacks, then why do we still do it? Why is it an integral part of most workplaces? Product discovery coach Teresa Torres at Product Talk says there are two reasons why brainstorming sessions continue in workplaces today:
The act of brainstorming is a skill that needs to be developed because when it is done properly, ideas generated by groups match the performance of individuals working alone.
The collaborative benefits of brainstorming outweigh the losses in creativity. While your employees might not come up with the most creative ideas, they are likely to all be on board with the existing ones and excited to move forward with them. What some people refer to as a “herd mentality” is actually just teamwork.
Either way, it’s possible to continue brainstorming in your organization without losing the creative benefits. You just have to be willing to try new things and make the best choices to foster creativity.
How Can We Improve Our Brainstorming Sessions?
While we don’t have to completely remove brainstorming from our creative lexicons, we should take steps to make these meetings more effective and produce concrete results. Consider changing your brainstorming style to incorporate more structure for better results.
Do Your Research Beforehand
Brainstorming has a reputation of people spewing ideas and sharing any thought that pops into their heads. While this might create a lot of ideas, it won’t necessarily create good ones.
“It can be tempting to pull from whatever ideas come to mind,” Kaleigh Moore, co-host of the Creative Class podcast writes. “However, working from research and case studies means taking a more data-backed approach to decision-making.”
Assign 15 minutes of research to all participants before the meeting. This will help your team see what has been done before and what has or hasn’t worked for informed decision-making. That way your ideas come from a point of inspiration, not assumptions.
Create a Calm and Focused Atmosphere
With a myriad of tasks to do each day, it’s hard to feel creative when you’re already burned out and have a pile of work waiting for you. By creating a calm environment and taking time to focus on the task at hand, you can prevent passive attendees and idea burnout.
Samantha Radocchia, co-founder of Chronicled, highlights the benefits of meditating and brainstorming. In particular, it frees your mind and promotes active listening, so you can focus on others.
“I’ve been in office meetings where, before we’d get into any meaningful discussion, everyone meditated for five to ten minutes,” she writes. “This keeps your mind from wandering and primes you to focus on what other people are saying. It’s a really useful activity when you need to brainstorm and investigate a particular topic.”
These few moments can calm the minds of your peers and bring the focus of the room to the goals at hand.
Use the Right Tools to Save and Expand on Your Ideas
A whiteboard and some post-it notes might be the only tools your team needs to brainstorm successfully. However, there are multiple tools out there that can improve the process. Consider testing a few of these options to make your ideas more creative and get the conversation going:
Lucidchart is a popular option for creating mind-maps and flow charts. Team members can build on it individually or as a group and visualize different aspects of the challenge. You can also list ideas in here and build off them to see what is plausible.
Stormboard offers virtual sticky notes so you can share resources, inspiration, thoughts, and ideas all in one place. This is ideal for collecting information before a brainstorming session or adding resources during the meeting to use later.
MindMeister is a collaborative tool that helps brainstorm leaders keep track of who is coming up with what. This option is colorful and it’s easy to prioritize certain ideas and tasks. You can use it for brainstorming, note taking, and meeting management.
You can use these tools to take the next steps and execute the ideas you came up with during your meeting.
What Are Some Alternatives to Brainstorming?
If you’re looking to move beyond the traditional brainstorming process and try something new, there are multiple options to choose from. Education and business experts are leading the way in developing effective brainstorming strategies. Below are five options that you can test with your team to see what works best.
A few years ago, cognitive psychologist and chief technology officer of Innovation Accelerator Tony McCaffrey came up with the concept of brainswarming: solving problems using silent communication, similar to the method insects use.
Brainswarming is a highly visual concept. Goals start at the top of the chart and resources start at the bottom. Without talking, people contribute ideas to the chart with post-it notes. Top-down thinkers refine the goals while bottom-up thinkers focus on how the resources could be used.
The two directions connect, aligning goals and ideas with the resources needed to execute them. In this method, instead of having one or two people responsible for a single great idea, everyone comes up with solutions together.
Ask for Questions, Not Solutions
Hal Gregersen, executive director at MIT Leadership Center, actually stumbled upon his method by accident. He compares brainstorming with his students to wading through oatmeal. The group was unenthused and the ideas weren’t great.
Instead, he told them to forget about the solutions and instead ask questions related to the topic. Students starting coming up with questions and concerns, and the energy grew. The result was that the group created concrete solutions based off of real concerns.
List the Worst Possible Ideas
Another option to improve your brainstorming strategy is the Worst Possible Idea method. In this case, you challenge your coworkers to come up with the worst ideas related to your industry. This relieves the anxiety of coming up with bad ideas.
“It's way easier to say 'Hey no that's not bad enough' than the opposite,” Rikke Dam and Teo Siang write at the Interaction Design Foundation.
Once the group is relaxed and dozens of terrible ideas have been pitched, the group works together to turn the bad ideas into good ideas. The foundation is there, the ideas just need a little tweaking.
Note and Vote
Stacey MacNaught, SEO and content marketing specialist, takes a look at the popular Note and Vote ideation method used by the Google Ventures team.
Here, participants have 10 minutes to write down as many ideas as possible related to a subject. They choose their top ideas, pitching them to the team. The team votes on the best ideas to execute.
Switch Between Group and Individual Ideating
You can still do traditional brainstorming while incorporating it into individual planning and research.
In her article at Inventium, innovation and business model lead for Oxfam Australia, Steph Thoo highlights a back and forth method that more industry leaders are trying. Team members spend five minutes brainstorming on their own and then pitch ideas one person at a time. Each is invited to provide feedback on the idea, then people work alone for five more minutes to hone their ideas.
The result is fully-realized ideas that can be executed, instead of a few half-baked concepts that might not be possible.