Why Do Some Brainstorming Sessions Suck?


Time flies, seasons change, and before you know it, the annual barrage of articles trashing the validity of brainstorming is once again upon us.

Like an unwanted present re-gifted again and again, these articles are often backed by academic studies that compared some quantifiable measure, such as the number of ideas generated by different methods, and found that more ideas were produced by having people engage in something other than “brainstorming,” such as solitary list-writing.

To argue that brainstorming doesn’t work is to simply ignore the thousands of amazing ideas and innovations that came to the world as a result of countless sessions of collaborative creativity that was, for all intents and purposes, brainstorming.

Probably the strangest part of these critical articles often comes at the end, when the author suddenly flips the script and admits that brainstorming actually can be very productive — but only if you do X, Y, and Z. Why give readers tips on brainstorming only after spending eight paragraphs trying to discredit it?

Meanwhile, there is a variety of well-known resources available with tips on productive brainstorming — from Alex Osborn’s original writings in the 1950s to recent publications and videos produced by Stanford’s d.school.

Just pick a method, book a conference room, invite some team members, and dive head first into your brainstorm, right?

Well, many organizations that eventually bring our company Innovationship in to help sharpen their brainstorming skills have started that way — and they’ve all found themselves frustrated and disappointed with unproductive sessions. The primary reason? Along with the new set of rules and skills they’re learning, they’ve also carried into their sessions old behaviors and habits they should have left outside the door.

Achieving a productive brainstorming session isn’t only about what you need to do, it’s very often about what you need to stop doing. It’s about what you need to unlearn in order to master the skill.

So here we go — my list of things you should not do when brainstorming. Work at tossing these bad habits and your sessions will be more creative, collaborative, productive, and, well, delightful.


Nine Brainstorming Bad Habits to Break

1. Brainstorming without a facilitator

Brainstorming is not an anarchist’s free-for-all. Neither is it a debate, a discussion, or a regular meeting. It is a unique event with clear dynamics and rules of engagement. And it requires a skilled facilitator to guide, direct, and shepherd the group through a short, intense, and productive session.

Here’s what usually happens without facilitation: the interaction between participants quickly morphs into a debate; the group never stays focused on a topic long enough to allow new ideas to emerge, and the loudest person in the room takes over and imposes his or her opinions and ideas. The bottom line is that many great ideas go unnoticed and undocumented when a skilled facilitator is not present.

2. Focusing on your own ideas

Unskilled participants often come into the session focused on their own ideas, hoping to share their creative thinking, perhaps even wanting to stand out and be noticed. The thing is, you’re really there to actively listen to the ideas of others. You can always sit down before the session to think about and write down your own ideas. But once you walk into the room, your primary focus should be on the ideas of others. By hearing new ideas that are different from your own, you are opening yourself up to the opportunity of making new connections, conjuring up new images, and generating a new and original idea. That’s the magic of collaborative creativity.

When you listen to a great jazz ensemble perform, you can hear this principle of “call and response” produce magical moments of collective creativity. While the musicians skillfully play their instruments and fulfill their roles, they are constantly listening to each other and responding to notes and phrases they hear, in real time. These inspire them to create new expressions, which, in turn, impact the playing of others in the group. It is therefore not surprising that the first thing great jazz educators teach is not how to play, but how to listen.

3. Judging the ideas of others

Remember, the goal of brainstorming is to generate as many ideas as possible. That’s why it’s important to accept every idea presented at face value. Allowing ideas to be freely shared without scrutiny creates a flow dynamic that yields many ideas quickly, and thus many opportunities for new connections and new thinking to emerge.

And while people may realize the benefit of not judging the ideas of others — all too often they forget to extend the same courtesy to themselves. In more than one session, I’ve seen a participant’s eyes light up in excitement as a new idea pops into her head, and I am curious to hear what it might be. If it takes too long for her to voice her idea, however, it’s clear to me that she’s censoring herself: perhaps she feels her idea is not clever enough, maybe even “dumb.” If I call on her and ask to share what she’s thinking of, she might hesitate, but invariably the idea she shares sparks fresh thinking in the group.

4. Sitting quietly in observation

Do not be a passive observer: build on the ideas of others. After all, this is the main reason for putting heads together in the first place. Someone just shared an idea: how might you build on that? As you listen, try to visualize and imagine their idea at work, and notice what additional functions, features, or experiences you’d want to add to that idea. Or perhaps by free association you get another idea that seemingly has nothing to do with the one before — make sure to share that, too. As you gain more practice, you’ll learn to trust your intuition, to let the ideas flow through you, and to express them in a way that builds momentum towards the unexpected.

5. Staying cool and reserved

Encourage wild ideas and don’t be afraid to get “out there” yourself. You’re all in the room for a common reason, and you’re all working towards the same high-level goal. So, assume that anyone presenting a wild idea is doing it out of some hunch that it might be relevant. If you can’t build on an idea because it simply seems too crazy, encourage the person who shared it to take it even further.

Collaboration in a brainstorming session includes pushing others to the limit of their creative capacity. Make sure, however, that you’re actually encouraging, and not challenging or judging. And don’t hold back: share your excitement and enthusiasm, and you will be rewarded with feedback and encouragement from others.

6. Hiding ideas inside long stories

Be precise and concise in your description of an idea. This, too, is a skill that can be learned and practiced. How might you describe an idea in the least number of words, or in a quick sketch? Like a sculptor who puts his chisel to a piece of marble, remove all the unnecessary stone to leave only the very essence of the idea. We want to capture ideas in a concentrated capsule, which will allow the session to flow quickly as these capsules are shared, played with, and built upon.

7. Speaking all at the same time

Even if you’re all bursting at the seams with ideas, the group should focus on one idea at a time. Avoid side conversations and small splinter groups: all ideas go to the facilitator, and each idea gets the group’s full attention. You don’t want to lose any opportunity for one idea to spark another — even a short remark can trigger a productive train of thought that ripples through the group and gives birth to some great ideas. A good facilitator will make sure each idea gets its fair share of attention: skilled participants can help by listening and pacing their own output.

8. Getting lost in discussion

Spoken words are powerful, and from a young age, we learn to compose complex sentences, debate, and tell stories. Beware of falling down a rabbit hole of words, anecdotes, and explanations. Instead, create opportunities to be visual.

A big element underlying brainstorming is the concept of visual thinking, using drawings, pictures, and diagrams to express ideas. Why do you think emojis caught on so quickly? You can write a long text message expressing your love to someone, or you can simply send them the heart emoji: which do you choose, when, and why?

When you’re engaged in high-speed creativity with a group of people, there’s a great advantage to going visual. In a dynamic brainstorming session, there are two important areas where this is relevant:

  • All ideas must be captured and displayed in a way that allows all participants to see them. Whether you’re using a whiteboard, or Post-it notes, or easel pads, each and every idea must be captured and displayed as soon as it is shared with the group. This allows the person who shared the idea to move on and “make room” in their head for a new idea. It also allows the group to scan the surface and be reminded of every idea that has come up, creating opportunities to build on the ideas of others throughout the session.

  • If possible and relevant, capture an idea with a sketch. A picture is often worth a thousand words. You don’t have to be a great artist to describe an idea in a picture — line drawings, stick figures, and simple box diagrams can do a wonderful job of expressing a product, process, or service experience.

9. Going on for too long

Brainstorming sessions are supposed to be high-energy, fast-paced, and intense. You want to keep participants on their toes, their minds scrambling around for new connections and ideas. Think of that moment when popcorn starts popping in the pot, and imagine being able to stretch that for as long as possible, to pop as many kernels as you can. But remember you have to stop because going too long means burning the popcorn. Brainstorming is similar in that way. When you go too long, you risk losing the group’s creative intensity and momentum.

Returning to jazz, I’m reminded of a quote from Miles Davis, who, in giving a young musician advice on how to keep a solo interesting, said: “Stop before you’re done.” Just as Miles wanted to keep the audience engaged, you want the brainstorming session to end on a high note. There’ll always be a way to capture more ideas once the session is over. So, stop before you’re done, and make sure to provide participants with ways to add new ideas in the following hours/days.

Taking Miles’s advice and stopping the session before it’s done means people leave the room excited and eager to join the next available brainstorming session.

Brainstorming is an invaluable tool for people in any industry who are tasked with developing strategies and solving challenges. Two heads are better than one, and several heads — up to about 7-10 — might even be better. If you are struggling with unproductive or frustrating sessions, take some time to unlearn what you’re currently doing, and practice these crucial tips to finally enjoy the fruit of this magical session of collaborative creativity.

Oh, and one more thing: do have a good time! To quote David Kelley from the classic Nightline episode about the design of a new shopping cart: “Innovation is very hard work… but it’s also lots of fun!”


Where Does Brainstorming meet Innovation?

What makes one company consistently innovative, while another company takes years to turn an idea into a new product or service? Productive brainstorming is just one important part of sparking and inspiring ongoing ideation.

We’ve written a free eBook called The 3 Keys to Innovating Every DayThe 16-page guide explains how to solve complex problems and uncover unique new solutions through the use of design thinking process, and why more companies are embracing design thinking as a way to inspire individuals and teams, and build a creative culture.