PERSPECTIVES

WHY MOST BRAINSTORMS FAIL… AND HOW YOURS CAN SUCCEED

Many people we talk to tell us that they struggle to deliver results from their idea generating sessions. Here are four simple steps to take to improve your brainstorming sessions, generate better results and ideas, and move closer to action.
Many people we talk to tell us that they struggle to deliver results from their idea generating sessions. Here are four simple steps to take to improve your brainstorming sessions, generate better results and ideas, and move closer to action.

WHY MOST BRAINSTORMS FAIL… AND HOW YOURS CAN SUCCEED

Bringing a group of people together to solve a challenge. Leveraging the collective power of thought in your team. Building stakeholder buy-in by involving them early in the solution.
All of these are great reasons to brainstorm aren’t they?

They are, but most brainstorm sessions come to nothing. Here’s why:

Most brainstorms start with a solution, not insight.

Years ago, I was in a meeting which was called a ‘brainstorm’. We were asked to have ideas for our next fundraising event – I was working in the charity sector at the time. The words rolled off our tongues onto the flip chart like water into the sea: get a celebrity, international theme, get sponsors, etc.

What do you think the event looked like? It looked like every other event we’d run! No celebrity no international theme, no sponsors. Why was this? Because we had been asked to start with the solution we had used previously. We weren’t solving a problem based on our guests’ feedback or unmet needs.

Every good idea generating session needs to start with a challenge question, which is grounded in deep insight into the end-users world.

How do you think this brainstorm might have looked if the facilitator had said, “our guests are telling us that our events don’t get them excited. How might we create a buzz around our events to better engage our audience?”

Most brainstorms don’t have a clearly articulated purpose.

Instead of saying “let’s have a brainstorm about…”, the best idea generation sessions ask challenge questions, which articulate a real-world problem faced by end-users, stakeholders, or customers. This must be grounded in insight, and should be specific, but beware of implicitly articulating a solution in the question.

The Goldilocks Grid of problem statements

Too vague Just Right Too specific
Let’s have ideas about wellbeing at work How might we support our people to have a better work-life balance? How can we give people a four day week?

Let’s dig into this.

‘Wellbeing at work’ is a territory for idea generating, but could include a huge array of possibilities. When you bring a group of minds together to idea generate, they would each bring their own sense of the best way to deal with wellbeing at work, so risk never finding points of alignment.

Giving people a four day week is an idea, which doesn’t need a brainstorm, but needs an action plan and stakeholder buy-in.

Supporting people to have better work-life balance is a good challenge area because it focuses on a particular aspect of wellbeing, but does not drive towards a specific solution. It gives people a clear direction, without stifling their creativity.

Most brainstorms generate thoughts, not ideas

This is crucial. Most of the things that people say in brainstorms are intentions, but are never worked up into actionable ideas. There’s a collaborative skill to this. Often a great idea starts with a thought or intention, but it takes the whole group to work it into an idea. Before you commit your idea to paper or post-it note, check that the following attributes are met:

  • Can we describe this idea in a way that someone else could understand?
  • Have we given our idea a name?
  • Do we have a sense of what this could like in reality? (the best way to test this is to literally try to draw it!)

Only once you can answer yes to these three questions should you write your idea down.

Most brainstorms end with no action

If you’ve held a brainstorm based on insight, with a clear direction, and sought to generate ideas, not just thoughts, them action should come naturally. But most brainstorms end with a flip chart or wall of post-it notes, which someone commits to ‘writing up’. A deck of verbatim quotes gets shared with participants a week later and… nothing happens.

At the end of your next idea generating session, ask your team to commit to action on the ideas that have been generated. Ideas are cheap – commitment is key to making something happen.

Ask for one person to own the idea’s development, and another to support them. Agree timescales and immediate next steps for each idea you want to take forward. And, crucially, agree accountability and follow up.

Conclusion

These are just four of the ways brainstorms fail, and some tips on how to overcome them. I’d love to hear from you how you’ve overcome these challenges to effective brainstorms, and others you may have seen.

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