Brainstorming for ideas is a really BAD idea


Group brainstorming is perhaps the most over-used and ineffectual business tools ever. Don’t get me wrong, brainstorming can work very well, but it is a skill and everyone needs to know that skill for it to work, but in reality very few people and organisations brainstorm properly which is why I would never advocate it if you want brilliant ideas.

What! Am I mad? Let me clarify, there’s nothing wrong with brainstorming if that means spending some focused time to generate lots of ideas, I mean group brainstorming – doing these things in a group.

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of most group brainstorming sessions;

– Social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work

– Production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the others sit passively (and not coming up with new ideas)

– Evaluation apprehension: meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers

If it’s not group brainstorming then what’s the best way? Here’s my checklist;

1. Seed the session before hand. Give people time to consider and ask questions about the objective of the ideation exercise before hand – most of a 1 hour group brainstorm can be wasted in a conversation about what the challenge actually is so by the end of the workshop you might have only touched the opportunity to generate ideas.

2. Bring provocations to stimulate ideas. If you are looking for product ideas for instance, bring the product or similar products. If you are looking for ideas to improve a service, bring some examples of real customer feedback about the service. You can see more about provocations by viewing a presentation I put together called the Secret Sauce of Innovation, click here.

3. Change the location. The boardroom or a cramped meeting room all huddled around a flip-chart will do nothing for creativity. Go out, sit on the grass, go to the nearest science museum, go to lunch, or dare I say it, to the pub for a drink! If you want NEW ideas, go anywhere other than where you do ‘business as usual’!

4. Don’t mandate it as a group exercise. Lots of us work better on our own or in a small group (and those that do generally don’t work at all well in a group situation). So introduce the subject to the group, encourage a discussion about the provocations and goals, but allow people to do whatever they prefer in the part of the workshop that requires some ideation activity. By the way, some people may indeed work better in a group and brainstorm together – some thrive on these situations, but beware, it might look and sound like they are creating, but end up with nothing so the mantra for these people is to build on other people’s ideas so as to avoid the three problems described above.

5. Don’t stop after the session. Of course you need to stop at some point, but sometimes good ideas need time to gestate so give people time to submit their ideas after the event. The worst thing you can do is to close the meeting, roll-up the flip charts and promise to write them up and send some feedback because people will think the job is done and they mentally move on to the next job.