Brainstorming: Three Ways To Get It Right

I love brainstorming. Permission to break free of the mundane and predictable world is one of the true joys of being creative. Done right, brainstorming reveals new territories filled with sensible yet crazy ideas that you wouldn’t have come across otherwise. The greatest thing about brainstorming is that it is one of the easiest things to do. Unfortunately, it is also one of the easiest things to screw up. If you aren’t careful, you can end up wasting your time and getting disappointing results. In the worst case, it’ll undermine your creative confidence and reinforce the let’s-just-do-what-we-know-works way of thinking. The ultimate enemy of creativity.

I want to help you fight the common enemy and give you my top three brainstorming tips. They will give you clearer direction on what you want, the brainstorming will be more focused and you won’t waste time on mediocre ideas.

Tip #1: Work backwards.
As unintuitive as it sounds, the key to successful brainstorming (and any design activity) is knowing what your end result needs to be. What is success? You don’t need to know what the exact ideas are ahead of time, but you need to know what criteria the ideas need to satisfy.

For example, you’re launching a new product in two months and you are looking to your team for ideas on how to market it on a modest budget. You kick off the brainstorming session and start getting some great ideas. You don’t want to limit the creative thinking so you just take it all down. At the end of the session, you tally a dozen killer ideas. Unfortunately, they all require a national campaign and a $10M spend. Your brainstorming session may have been fun (blue sky thinking always is) but it was a failure.

Do this: Create a brainstorming summary document. Leave lots of space to describe each idea, but pre-fill the session goals along with the constraints (time, budget, people, assets). Use this when kicking off your brainstorming session.

Tip #2: Put the pressure on.
Pressure prepares athletes by heightening senses, increasing heart rates and preparing them to handle whatever comes their way. The right amount of pressure enables people to rise to the occasion and allows them to be more nimble thinkers. Think back to when you were put under pressure. Apart from your anxiety (too much pressure), you probably felt more alive, aware and engaged than you were the rest of the day. Successful brainstorming utilizes pressure to get a higher volume and quality of ideas from everybody.

Time is a great tool for adding pressure to a brainstorming session. Provide too much time and energy levels drop, people start checking their emails, and you lose momentum. Provide too little time and you miss out on getting some great ideas. You can gauge what is too little or too much by the pace of interaction and team energy level. Your job is to maintain the sweet spot of motivating pressure.

Do this: Divide your brainstorming session into multiple parts and put time constraints around them. For example, give the team 20 minutes to generate new ideas. Then spend 10 minutes refining each of the top three ideas. Be strict with the timing or the pressure will be released.

Tip #3: Cut the good ideas.
If I ask you to draw a picture of a car, chances are you will draw a side-view of a car you own or have seen before. It may be cartoony but it’ll have two solid wheels, a roof, seats and will probably face right and with a happy driver behind the steering wheel. Whatever your drawing skill level, chances are most people won’t have a problem recognizing what it is. It’ll be a good drawing. Nice job.

Now, ask a child to draw a picture of a car. Chances are things will turn out very differently. This car may have jets, wings, and carry buckets of candy fuel. Most of it will push the boundaries of what is possible, but chances are, it will still be recognizable. It’ll be a great drawing.

As adults, we tend to first gravitate toward the expected, predictable, known examples. I can’t tell you how many “creative” meetings I’ve been in where somebody said “Let’s just do what they’re doing.” or “I’ve like it done this way.” Brainstorming poses questions and it’s in our nature to want to give the “right” answer. Unfortunately, the only answers we know are right are those which already exist. Therefore, we must push beyond and start to think originally. That’s where great ideas come from.

Do this: Write down all the ideas. Focus on the ideas that are unexpected, new and show original thinking. You’ll know which ones these are because they will be the most controversial and exciting.

Put these tips into practice and you will find the quality of your brainstorming sessions improve. Best of luck creating greatness!


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