11 Essential Tips For a Smarter Brainstorm

I recently realized I’ve been running brainstorms, getting trained in brainstorming practices and teaching others how to productively brainstorm for over 20 years. Over 25 years. Ummm…a long time.

I put down the Geritol and said to myself, “Why not write down some of the best practices you know succeed, time after time, in delivering a great brainstorm?”  At which point my wife said, “You know we can hear you, right?”

Here’s a beginner’s list of tips for holding an effective brainstorm process: brainstorming is more than just a single meeting. Some of you may disagree with some of these pearls of wisdom, to which I can only say, it must be really difficult being so wrong about everything. I’ve seen good brainstorms and bad, and the good ones absolutely follow as many of these tips as possible.

  • TIME IT RIGHT: The best time of day for a brainstorm? Start no earlier than 10 A.M., end no later than 4 P.M. Give folks a chance to settle into the day, then avoid their getting antsy and restive at the end of the day.
  • KEEP A TIGHT TEAM: There’s a technical term for brainstorms with more than 7-8 people in the room: chaos. Keep the number at a level where the group’s attention doesn’t splinter and people can listen, be heard and share more effectively.IMG_5178
  • SHELVE THE SUGAR: Ever show up for a brainstorm where they’ve laid out candy and soda, like that’ll drive kindergarten-style levels of hyperactivity? What happens is crash time. What’s good brainstorming fuel? Moderate caffeine and lighter fare. Nothing that’ll drain the circulation and concentration from anyone’s grey matter.
  • NOT EVERYBODY BELONGS IN THE ROOM: Some people just aren’t good at brainstorming, and including them can actually sabotage the process. If your main intention is team building, then consider folks who might not bring anything to the mix. But if you’re after creative productivity, limit it to those you know can make a contribution.
  • THINK IT OVER, OVERNIGHT: Brainstorms suffer if you’re spending the first hour briefing people on the project. Give participants a brief the day before or have a separate download meeting. It’s a proven fact we brainstorm better if we data-dump a day early, giving the subconscious  a chance to mull it over.
  • LET THEM DO HOMEWORK: Feel free to ask invitees to bring thoughtstarter ideas to the session. Some say that’s giving people the unfair advantage of a head start. So? There’s nothing wrong with encouraging competition by giving employees a chance to work up ideas beforehand so they can jump-start things. Just make sure they know their ideas are a start, not a finish.
  • YES, THERE’S “NO”: There are absolutely bad ideas or suggestions that take you in the wrong direction, or down a rabbit hole of clichés and me-too thinking. Cut them off. A good moderator should guide the discussion back toward the light without summoning negativity or ridicule. Call it a teaching moment.
  • HAVE THE RIGHT TOYS: Kid’s toys? Nope. Have the right creative and collaboration tools, meeting supplies and materials. One way to stall an ideation? Just run out of easel paper.
  • EXERCISE! EXERCISE! Do a loosen-up exercise beforehand, anything from having people tell jokes to to reciting a mantra. Use other exercises during the session to drive new ideas, from the classic 180º to many others that make brainstorming fun…because without fun, you’re not creating anything fresh.
  • GET UP, GET OUT, GET GOING: One tactic that works? Take the chairs out of the room. Whaaaat? Studies show our brains work better when we’re on our feet. Better yet? Take the team for a walk. Go somewhere that’ll stimulate invention. It doesn’t need to be a museum or gallery, but the design-y boutique up the street or the retailerwhere your client wants to place some dazzling P.O.S. or packaging ideas.
  • GO WIDE TO GET FOCUSED: Hold a divergence brainstorm first, where you can even bring in “outsiders” with fresh P.O.V.s, and get wide-open thinking. Follow it with a convergence session with your core team to refine those raw ideas into practical initiatives.

So that’s a start. Observe maybe half of these and you’re in good shape for your next skull session. Hit them all, and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Me, I’m off to slam Skittles and Geritol.


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