Team brainstorming is always a good idea—at least, on paper. What usually happens is this: the company is experiencing a tough problem that no single person seems able to solve, so someone decides that more minds means more processing power, and before you know it you’re all gathered in the conference room. One or two people churn out bad idea after bad idea, while everyone else stares at the wall or multitasks. There are no major breakthroughs and most of you are irritated at the waste of time.
Why is this such a problem?
Brainstorming: Productive or Unproductive?
You might be tempted to say that collective brainstorming itself is the problem—that there’s no easy way to force ideas. Research does suggest that some of the best ideas are ones that come from a flash of inspiration, usually randomly, and usually alone. However, the cumulative work of team brainstorming adds a few new dimensions—such as idea revision and blending, occasionally referred to as “idea sex”—that compensate for the natural disadvantages of solo idea generation. Accordingly, team brainstorming is not a waste of time—it just needs to be implemented more effectively.
The Meeting Effect
No matter how much you dress it up, a “team brainstorming” session is just a meeting, and meetings are dangerously vulnerable to breaches of personal productivity. Accordingly, one of the best ways to hold better brainstorming sessions is to hold better meetings in general.
How to Make Brainstorming Better
The two main ideas we have to “fix” team brainstorming sessions are to rely more on individual, random idea generation and to host better meetings in general. These strategies will help you get there:
- Choose the right people. Your first job is to choose the right people for the meeting. If you fill the meeting with random people unrelated to the problem, they’re not going to be invested and they’re not going to participate. More isn’t always better here. Eliminate anyone who isn’t at least partially invested in the problem at hand, then start thinking about each individual’s track record of participation. You want people who are creative, vocal, and willing to discuss problems openly—anyone else will only drag your meeting’s momentum down.
- Know the goals beforehand—and give people time. Good ideas don’t creep up spontaneously when your brain is put under pressure. They do better when you give them time and allow them to marinate. Accordingly, you should give your employees a detailed description of the problem and schedule the meeting at least several days in advance, with the requirement that each employee come to the meeting with some pre-cooked ideas. This will save some time, and hopefully give you better ideas to serve as the foundation for your discussion. Many companies, particularly startups, can often focus on the wrong thing. The more time you give people here the better, so if you can give them a week or more to reflect on the problem, do it.
- Keep the session brief. As a general rule, shorter meetings are more effective. The modern tradition is to schedule every meeting to last an hour, thanks to the convenience that Outlook and other email/calendar management apps have provided for us. However, a faster session will require people to come up with ideas more spontaneously, and will prevent people from losing energy or motivation during the course of the session. You don’t have to go crazy here—half an hour for complex problems and 15 minutes for shorter ones should serve you well. Remember, you can always go over on time or schedule a follow-up meeting if there are still leftover ideas to explore. It might even be good to give each individual more time to think separately.
- Mandate participation. You chose these people for a reason—you know them to be creative thinkers with the capacity for idea generation and active discussion. There’s no excuse to have non-participants in the meeting. If you have to, go around the room to each person, or instill some other rule or structure that forces people to converse with one another. The only reason to have a team brainstorming session is to facilitate a live conversation—without that degree of participation, you might as well not have the meeting. Something is always better than nothing, which brings me to my final strategy.
- Encourage the “bad” ideas. Oftentimes, “good” ideas are merely the natural result of having created many ideas. There’s no one person, place, or method that inherently produces “better” ideas; however, there are opportunities that can create more ideas, and if only one percent of ideas are good, having more ideas will naturally lead you to having more “good” ideas. This is a long way of saying that there shouldn’t be a heavy distinction between bad ideas and good ideas—encourage all ideas from all of your employees, and you’ll naturally end up with better ideas by the end.
Using these strategies, you should start to see more creativity and more overall productivity in your team brainstorming sessions. Once you stop forcing the flow of ideas and start encouraging more unique participation, the difference will be unmistakable. Also, don’t be afraid to take baby steps—it’s perfectly fine to implement these ideas one at a time to see how your team responds, and you always have time and room to change back if necessary.