Group brainstorming was a revolutionary idea when it was introduced to the corporate world around 1940. Developed by Alex Osborn, these “think up” sessions were designed to creatively attack problems by gathering spontaneous responses from different coworkers.
There were four rules that Osborn established:
- No criticism allowed
- Go for a large quantity of ideas
- Build on each other’s ideas
- Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
In the brainstorm, there was no such thing as a wrong answer or a stupid solution. There were only raw and beautiful ideas.
Though Osborn’s concept spread like wildfire, it was not without its fair share of criticism. Today, brainstorming often carries a negative connotation in modern business and creative environments. They see it as nothing more than a waste of time.
But it doesn’t have to be. Done correctly, there is a time and place for a collective brainstorm. To do so, however, you have to avoid the common pitfalls.
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Brainstorming
Modern brainstorming sessions fall into a number of unhelpful tropes.
Often, one or two influential/talkative attendees will dominate the conversation, sharing far more than anyone else, even cutting others off, and ultimately oversaturating the room with their perspective. In the meantime, others may forget their ideas or deem them irrelevant to the direction the conversation has gone.
All of this leads to a problem called “groupthink”.
Groupthink is an actual psychological occurrence that happens when people seek to conform to a singular outcome, even if it’s irrational or mediocre.
Alternatively, you may have a person in the group who simply spends their time shooting down everyone else’s ideas without offering a suggestion of their own.
That’s why you need some rules and strategy.
How to Brainstorm Better: Add Some Structure
Adding structure and additional rules to a brainstorming session might seem counter-intuitive, but hear us out. By establishing some ground rules, you can consciously avoid the pitfalls of brainstorming.
When the session starts, make sure everyone has something to write on so they can jot quick thoughts down if someone else is already talking. If there’s a fear that one or two voices will dominate the conversation, maybe the solution is to limit the amount of ideas that can by shared per person.
If you’re afraid a lot of your team won’t say anything, make it a requirement for everyone to share an idea. You’ll be surprised by what a person might come up with when they have to come up with something.
And for those teammates who spend all their energy shooting down others’ concepts, you could establish a rule that you can’t reject an idea unless you have an alternative suggestion.
Looking to take it a step further? Here’s one method we suggest:
The Sticky Note Brainstorm
At the start of the session, give everyone a sticky-note pad and a pen. Then, present the group with a problem or question and tell them they have 30-60 seconds to write down as many solutions as possible.
When the time’s up, move to your next question or problem, and keep going until you’ve exhausted all of the topics.
Once that’s done, collect all of the sticky notes and start to arrange them on the wall. As you do, you’ll begin to see patterns emerge and applicable solutions arise. From there, you can discuss and refine as a group, knowing that everyone has had a chance to contribute to the discussion in a pure, efficient manner.
Knowing When It’s Time to Walk Away
If you’re having a brainstorming session and it’s not going anywhere, don’t hesitate to pause or post-pone things till a later time and day. People, even in groups, hit creative walls. The best solution for that is to simply break, decompress and comeback later.
Brainstorming can still serve a purpose in the modern conference room. You just need to utilize some business leadership skills like awareness and planning, and you can set your team up for success.
Mind mapping is a modern twist on brainstorming. The yellow sticky note approach may still apply but there are also online software tools that you can use just as effectively. In his book Will It Fly?, Pat Flynn discusses mind mapping in more detail.
Whether it’s mind mapping, brainstorming, ideation or anything else, the idea is the same – to get as many ideas out on the table as possible so that you can better define whatever it is you are creating or better attack whatever issue or challenge you are facing.