Six (More) Steps To Better Brainstorms

In my previous post on making brainstorms work, I shared some of the things that many of us dislike most about brainstorms. And not surprisingly, these are the things which if not managed properly, result in brainstorm failure.

On a more positive note, I shared six of the things you can do to increase the chance of brainstorm success. Here are six more:

  1. Invite Participants From A Number of Disciplines: If your goal is an agnostic, integrated approach, common sense dictates that you invite participants with expertise beyond traditional public relations. If you have to go beyond your agency for this brain-power, so be it. In fact, shaking things up creatively by having non-agency personnel attend is always a good idea. If your program is for a tech product, don’t be afraid to invite healthcare PR or agency “foodies.” If it’s for a consumer product, invite tech and healthcare PR pros. Sometimes the best ideas are generated by those who bring the outside-looking-in perspective.
  2. Invite Participants From A Number of Levels: Actionable, creative, tactical ideas can be generated by PR pros of a variety of experience levels. Don’t limit yours to the gray hairs. Have a good mix of Boomers, GenXers and Millennials (Gen Ys) in your session. This is particularly true if you’re trying to develop programs that may in some way tie to popular culture, that will have digital components, and might need to be delivered via mobile channels. In other words, nearly every program today!
  3. Use Brainstorms To Develop Programs, Not Strategies: While I advocate having pros from all levels at the brainstorm itself, developing strategy is not for newbies, nor for committees. In fact, there are few things worse than using brainstorm time arguing over strategy. Your brainstorm will be far more successful if you have a clear strategy from the get-go. That’s because at various times during the brainstorm the problem holder must choose which ideas the group will focus on and develop, which she/he can develop on her own, and which ideas will be allowed to die a natural death. (Notice, we never talk about ideas being killed, rejected or jettisoned.) A solid strategy is what allows the problem holder to say “yea” or “later” at critical times during the session. In fact, the brainstorm methodology in which I was trained during my Ogilvy & Mather PR days was developed by Ogilvy Research to be used by all the agency’s many divisions to create a strategic “floor” to assure that ideas developed at brainstorms weren’t just creative, but would indeed solve clients’ marketing and communications issues.
  4. Much Must Happen Before The Session: A brainstorm isn’t the beginning, but the midpoint of developing an effective communications plan. Before the session, the facilitator should meet with the problem holder to determine, among other things: 1) The problem that the group is there to solve; 2) Different ways of looking at the problem; 3) Who the real problem holder is. If, for example, the EVP or agency owner is going to be the decision maker, than she, not the VP or AS, should be the problem holder during the session; 4) Explain the methodology that the facilitator will be using so that the problem holder is fully on board, including brainstorm rules. (I covered the importance of having a facilitator and brainstorm rules in my previous post.)
  5. The Problem Holder’s Work Starts Before The Session: In addition to participating in the advance meeting outlined above, the problem holder must determine the strategy in advance of the session. This can be done in consultation with one or two other agency executives who fully understand the client’s issues, and who clearly get the difference between goals, objectives, strategies and actions/tactics. Once the strategy is developed and committed to, the problem holder should share this in a brief that also contains a clear discussion of the goals and objectives, the issue, the competition, and any complicating factors. This should be limited to one to one-and-a half pages. If it’s longer, many of your participants won’t read it.
  6. Participants’ Work Starts Before The Session: The brief mentioned above should ask each participant to come to the session with three-to-five programming solutions to the client’s problem. This is particularly helpful for introverts, who are sometimes uncomfortable with the group dynamic, developing ideas on the spot, or sharing them with a group that includes boisterous extroverts. It also starts the brainstorm off with terrific momentum.

I’ll have more suggestions on brainstorms that generate valuable ideas in my next post. Meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve done to foster better brainstorms. 

 

 

 

Ken Jacobs

I’m the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, which helps public relations and communications agencies and organizations grow and manage business, and enhance staff performance, leadership and communications skills.We do so via consulting, training, and coaching. To learn more, please click on the “Jacobs Communications Consulting” tab on the top.

6 comments
KensViews
KensViews

Great point, @scortina .  Ice-breakers are good for all personality types, and if done properly, can help create a sense of teamwork among the participants, which is vital for a brainstorm to work. Thanks!

KensViews
KensViews

Hi @lauren letellier , my apologies for not acknowledging your very good comment earlier.  I'm amazed that many agencies, who have so much riding on a pitch, or even their client's annual program, will invest thousands of dollars in staff time in a brainstorm, but won't invest in hiring a trained facilitator, or training team members how to properly facilitate, to maximize brainstorms results. 

scortina
scortina

To kick off the brainstorming session, facilitators could also use some type of ice breaker to get everyone involved comfortable. This can especially help the introverts but also even the extroverts.

lauren letellier
lauren letellier

Couldn't agree more but the sad truth is that few agencies (and very few holding company agencies) run facilitated brainstorm sessions anymore.  The excuses are legion but the common theme is "there's not enough time." Agencies devalue work that is not billable, .and agency models aren't built to keep people who think for a living around.  At my first agency, Burson-Marsteller, even being invited to a brainstorm was a signal honor, a sign that one had arrived.  Brainstorms were significant events, and the entire agency pulled together to support them.  To this day you can learn to "do" at any agency; but some of us can say with pride that we learned to think at Burson-Marsteller. 

ChrisCapra
ChrisCapra

Excellent post Ken! I'd love to add two quick points that we follow for our own BS sessions :-)

1. Everyone is at the same level - there is no hierarchy in brainstorming, everyone's opinion and ideas count equally. You want the participants to feel unencumbered by position so they can freely speak their minds and express their ideas.

2. No Negatives! - For us brainstorming is the time to flesh out new ideas in an open environment. This is not the time for critiques or opposing views. Every idea has merit, your job is facilitate the generation of ideas. Afterwards you can put them through more thorough vetting and critical review to see if they are right for your client.

 

KensViews
KensViews

 @ChrisCapra Thanks for your comments.  In the brainstorm facilitation process in which I was trained, we do reserve time for what we called "Balanced Assessment," where we divide the ideas into 1) Best ideas: Those the problem owner and team can develop on their own, and 2) Most Intriguing: Those that have a solid core, but need the group's help in making work. We use a certain facilitator language to get the group to work together to improve the ideas, in a non-critical, constructive fashion. Quite often, with this approach, the ideas from the "Most Intriguing" section end up being better than those from "Best ideas" and help the agency win the business.