Ever since we were children, we have been taught about the importance of brainstorming and thinking up about groups together. Many businesses have regular brainstorming sessions, where workers get together and come up with brilliant ideas to improve the company.
But what actually happens at the start of the session is that everyone looks at each awkwardly for a moment, until someone suggest the first thing which pops into their head just to break the silence. Everyone in the meeting leaves it frustrated, whether it is because they could not come up with ideas or because they have wasted an entire hour which could have been spent more productively. The Harvard Business Review noted that “decades of studies” show that brainstorming groups “come up with fewer ideas (and fewer good ideas) than the individuals would have developed alone.”
That hour could have been spent more productively because the way companies approach brainstorming is completely wrong. By understanding what companies are doing wrong, we can fix the problems and make brainstorming something truly innovative.
- Less is More
Most brainstorming sessions invite large numbers of people, often out of the ideal that wisdom can come out of the mouths of babes. Business development specialist RapidBI, for example, suggests that a brainstorming session “is most effective with groups of between 8 and 12 people performed in a relaxed environment.”
That number is far too high. The problem with an overly large group is that no matter how large the group is, a few people directly related to the discussion will inevitably dominate the session with their ideas. Those unrelated to the discussion will feel left out and not participate, dragging down the pace at which ideas are dragged as a whole.
A small group of people openly willing to discuss problems and who have a stake in solving it is much better than a large group of disinterested individuals. Instead of 8 to 12, have a session with just 3 to 5 dedicated members.
- Write or Draw instead of Talking
As noted above, most brainstorming sessions see a few extroverted people dominate the group with their ideas. This carries multiple downsides. Introverts are less likely to contribute, and the proposed ideas are those who are easy to explain and more abstract than practical. Furthermore, discussion will normally center on the first mentioned idea, preventing later ideas from rising to the forefront.
Instead of having people say their ideas out loud, ask them to take their time, write the ideas down, and hand them to the team leader. Then the team leader can display the ideas. Each idea can be discussed one at a time, giving them all the attention they deserve.
- Announce the meeting well in advance
There is nothing more frustrating than being asked how to solve a problem and only having a minute or two come up with an answer. A rushed idea is a bad idea, and the common statement that there are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session is just not true.
The Clark Law Office advises to Let the brainstorm participants know a week in advance that the meeting is happening, and provide a detailed description of what problem they will be trying to solve. This gives workers more time to ponder the problem on their own time. Furthermore, it lets the brainstorming session hit the ground running since the leader does not have to spend time explaining the problem.
- Avoid criticism
We say that there are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session not because there are no bad ideas. There are plenty of bad ideas. We say that because we do not want a storm of criticism enveloping every idea and discouraging participants from speaking out.
Just as there are those who are the first to speak up with new ideas, there are those who do nothing in these sessions but criticize anything new and innovative. Try to keep those individuals away from the session, or talk to them about their habits and encourage them to stop.
- Follow Up
Anyone can come up with an idea. What determines successful people from unsuccessful people is not the ability to come up with good ideas, but the ability to execute on said ideas. As Dilbert noted 20 years ago, all too often workers come up with ideas only for said ideas to be shoved onto a “To Do” list and promptly forgotten.
After ideas have been developed in a brainstorming session, form a task group to discuss implementing the ideas preferably within the same day. Even if the group decides to not implement the idea, that should be openly announced as soon as possible instead of quietly forgotten. By providing an explanation for why the idea was rejected, the task group shows people that their brainstormed ideas are being seriously considered. This will encourage everyone to come up with future ideas.