It’s the new year and you’re excited to get to work on your 2020 content calendar. Sure, you wish it had been done months ago, but it is what it is. Fortunately, you feel refreshed now that the holidays are over, and you’re looking forward to getting your team into a conference room for a B.O.B. (big ole brainstorm — it’s a thing, I’m sure of it). You Googled some fun exercises that involve flip charts and sticky notes, and you’ve already decided to add fruit to the refreshment list because, well, it’s January and resolutions are still in full effect. This is going to be fun!
There’s just one problem: Brainstorms don’t work.
It’s true. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what I’ve observed over my career. Research says they don’t work.
One big reason they don’t work is the various personalities in the room. Sure, some people thrive in brainstorms, but most of us don’t. Most of us aren’t able to walk into a room and blurt out brilliant ideas based on a topic that was given to us five minutes ago. No, brainstorms like these are just not the best platform for most people to conceive their best ideas. And that means you are missing out on valuable ideas from really smart and creative members of your team.
That said, you needn’t nix brainstorm meetings altogether. Instead, just rethink them. For your next brainstorm, try this approach:
1. Write down clear objectives for your brainstorm — and then communicate them to the participants.
Are you looking to come up with a concept for your next big campaign or a bunch of story ideas for your corporate blog? Maybe you need thoughts on how to visually communicate a difficult subject, or you’re looking for new angles for existing story ideas. Whatever your objective, keep the conversation narrow. The more specific your objective, the more likely it is you will succeed in getting the input you desire.
And don’t forget to communicate your objective to your team. This seems fairly obvious, I know. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a meeting and heard the question: “So, why are we here?” <Cringe>
2. Set expectations for your meeting participants.
Some creatives can brainstorm very quickly. Others are going to need more time to get their wheels turning. And that’s OK. Their individual creative processes aren’t the point. With brainstorms, it’s not about the journey but the destination. What matters is that everyone has the time they need to prepare their ideas. Some people can do that literally as they’re speaking. But most people benefit from having a couple of days or a week to give the brainstorm topic(s) some thought. Give them less than that, and you’ll end up with just a few people dominating the brainstorm. What’s worse, you’ll miss out on some possibly brilliant ideas that may have come with just a little more time.
This strategy also helps avoid too much groupthink. When people don’t come prepared, they’re much more likely to glom onto the first idea they hear, and it may be difficult to cultivate unique ideas thereafter.
3. Make the room a comfortable and safe space.
It’s your meeting, which means it’s also your job to make sure everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas. Set some clear ground rules. Here are four I use:
- We will respectfully listen to all ideas.
- We will do our best to think of ways each idea works rather than why it doesn’t.
- Everyone gets a chance to speak.
- Joking and having fun is welcome, but we will not tolerate insults or making fun of anyone’s ideas.
4. Read the room.
Just as bad as having one or two people dominate a brainstorm is having no one speak up. If you have a group that’s struggling, consider having everyone put their ideas on a sticky note and post them on a wall anonymously.
If you suspect this might be your group, consider having participants submit ideas to you in advance. This ensures that quiet people get credit for their ideas quietly, as they would prefer. Plus, you can make sure everyone’s done their homework. You could even collect and then distribute the ideas to the group to consider in advance of the brainstorm, use the meeting to talk through the pros and cons of your frontrunners and devise a strategy around them.
5. Don’t let yourself off the hook.
Facilitating a brainstorm can be a lot of work. You have to keep everyone engaged, police the room, inspire creativity and somehow capture everyone’s ideas so they’re not forgotten between the brainstorm and the budget meeting. (Hint on that last one: Record the meeting or have someone take notes so you can focus on leading the meeting.)
But there is one other thing you definitely need to do during the brainstorm: Contribute your own ideas. Sure, it’d be easy to keep them to yourself and add them to the notes later — what does it matter anyway, if you’re the one deciding the fate of each idea? But it does matter, and you’d be missing out by not contributing. You’d miss out on demonstrating that while you’re the boss, you’re still part of the team. You’d miss out on someone taking your idea and tweaking it and making it better. You’d miss out on having a discussion point in your back pocket in case the brainstorm stalls.
6. Make sure you achieve some resolution in the meeting.
People like to feel as though they’ve accomplished something. Always end your brainstorms by telling participants what the next steps are. Sometimes that will be executing on an obvious “winning” idea that came out of the brainstorm. Other times it will be simply that you will review the ideas and determine what to do with them. Let the group know to stay tuned, and then …
7. Follow up.
Be sure to say thank you shortly after the meeting and express gratitude for the team’s ideas. Further down the line when the campaign, publication, story or project — whatever you were brainstorming — is complete, be sure to share it with everyone who had a hand in it. This includes people who were at your brainstorm whose ideas you didn’t use. Remember to express that even ideas that aren’t directly represented in the piece were an important part of the creative process that brought us to the finish. Not only is that true, but it’s a good way to set the tone for your next brainstorm.
Tell us … What was the best (or worst) brainstorm you ever participated in? What were the top drivers of your experience?