You Can Make Brainstorms Work. Here’s How.

Many communications pros hate brainstorms. I know my friend Gini Dietrich does. And who can blame them? We’ve all experienced these classic brainstorm “downers”:

  • Extroverts who are so bursting with ideas that we never hear the good thinking of the Introverts, who are smart, but so intimated by the extroverts that they don’t contribute to the session.
  • Over-explainers, who provide so much background and build-up to their ideas, as they endeavor to win group acceptance for them, you need a map to follow their trains-of-thought as they attempt to get to the point.
  • Negative types who think that their job is to cut down the idea of every other participant. (Funny, they tend to think their ideas are just brilliant.) They don’t realize that every time they minimize a fellow attendee’s idea, that person goes quiet for a good 15 minutes, as do many others in the group.
  • Related to them are Killer Questioners, who put solid suggestions from their fellow stormers to death with an innocent sounding question:”Do you think the client would ever spend that kind of money?” “Do you think the retailers would contribute to that effort?” “Do you think we could ever get that off the ground in six months?”
  • “Tommy Guns,” who are so busy sharing rapid-fire idea nuggets, they don’t play the most important role that every brainstormer must: To build upon the ideas of one’s fellow participants.
  • Overtasked Problem Holders, who are so busy explaining the problem, providing client insight, contributing their own ideas and keeping the brainstorm moving, they look like their heads are about to explode. Worse, when so overloaded, they can’t possibly make critical decisions when it’s time to do so. This won’t exactly inspire the group to generate valuable creative, strategic output that will solve the problem at hand or create an effective communications program.

And that’s only a partial list.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In this and the next few related posts, I’ll share some ideas that will help you create more effective brainstorm sessions.

Here are some starting thoughts:

  1. Find and use the methodology that works for you. While there may be no perfect approach, I know that any methodology or process has to be better than none. The aforementioned Gini found one that works for her. Do some research, try a few different approaches. In short order, your brainstorm output will improve.
  2. Separate problem-holding from facilitation. Effective brainstorm facilitation is both an art and a science. And there’s no way the problem holder, the executive who called the brainstorm and who must create the plan, can explain the problem, provide client insights, contribute ideas, make the tough decisions and run the brainstorm effectively. Professional facilitators are specially trained to deal with all of the aforementioned problems and then some. An agency holds a brainstorm because the stakes are high: A major new business pitch, an important client’s new annual communications program, or an important agency issue. And you’re investing the valuable time of the participants and pulling them away from client-billable work. Hiring a facilitator is more than a cost. It’s an investment that can have a major impact on the session’s outcome, which in turn can have major implications on your client’s success. Now is not the time to skimp. (Disclosure: I’m a trained brainstorm facilitator.)
  3. Have A Reason For The Session, and there really is only one: to help the problem holder solve the problem. Make sure that all participants realize this. Rinse and repeat.
  4. Have Strict Rules, and Enforce Them. Brainstorm rules don’t limit creativity. Quite the opposite is true. When session participants know that the facilitator will protect their ideas, prevent negativity and killer questions, and limit brainstorm “dominators,” it allows them to be a lot more creative. Find a humorous “punishment” for rule violators, one that will make the point without damaging their ego or discouraging them from continuing to contribute to the session.
  5. Separate idea generation from idea editing/selection. Although technology allows us to multi-task, research shows that our brains aren’t wired to do so. If anything, we’re wired to unitask. That’s certainly true when it comes to idea creation. Once we go into “editing” mode, creative mode goes into hibernation. The only way to overcome this is to dedicate a solid portion of your session to pure ideation: No negatives, no critiquing, and no editing, by others or even ourselves.
  6. Dedicate a portion of the session to select, edit and improve the best ideas.  Have a system to allow the group to weigh in on selecting the best ideas, with the problem holder having the ultimate decision. The group should create two lists: First, the best, most practical ideas that the problem holder can turn into an effective program, perhaps with the help of his/her account team, but without the brainstorm group’s help. The second is a list of the most intriguing ideas. These are the concepts on which the group will work to make even better.

What are the worst brainstorm offenses you’ve experienced? What techniques have you employed to improve creative session output?

If this post proved valuable, you might enjoy reading Six (More) Steps To Better Brainstorms.

 


2 comments
ginidietrich
ginidietrich

When I worked at FH, I had no idea the reason I wasn't able to contribute as much to brainstorms is because I'm an introvert. It wasn't because I was intimidated by the extroverts - I live with one so they don't intimidate me. But what I discovered is I need time to absorb and think about issues. I'm not a top-of-the-head creative person because I'm an introvert.

That's why I love the charette model. It gives me time to think about the challenges and come up with some really innovative and creative ways to approach them. Plus it gives everyone in the room an opportunity to include their voice.

KensViews
KensViews

@ginidietrich I appreciate your comment, and thanks for your post about charette on @Spin Sucks. That's what got me thinking about this topic. One thing I'll address in a future post is something that's apparently common to both my approach and the charette model: The importance of distributing a brief with critical information to participants in advance, and asking all to come to the session with ideas. In addition, a good facilitator is trained in how to get input from both extroverts and introverts in real time. BTW, I've seen the top of your head and I believe it's very creative.

mlhermanMichael L. Herman
@mlherman:
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danirschuylerDanielle Schuyler
@danirschuyler:
RT @CrenshawComm: Anatomy of a PR Business Win http://t.co/keHpfN8hCn via @kensviews
6 days ago
ginidietrichGini Dietrich
@ginidietrich:
Focus on leading, not just managing by my super annoying fake big brother, @kensviews http://t.co/1sQfYh9j0x
6 days ago
CrenshawCommCrenshawComm/PR
@CrenshawComm:
Anatomy of a PR Business Win http://t.co/keHpfN8hCn via @kensviews
6 days ago