Are Brainstorms Dead?

by Andy Eklund

In the past two months, I've received five articles and two blog posts heralding the death of brainstorms. Is it the economy which has caused this? Perhaps. I've had three brainstorms in the same time period cancelled. (One client told me her boss said: "We don't have money to implement new ideas at the moment." Well, good luck with those old ideas.)

Or, perhaps it's because four of the authors had a new book to spruik. (What a surprise.) Each of them had a new "buzzword" and methodology which rendered the philosophy of brainstorms obsolete. One of them even confessed - and I'm not kidding - that he'd invented his new buzzword during a brainstorm.

Personally, I think the reason is even more simple. We're all tired of attending badly managed, poorly organised and strategically inept meetings where nothing gets accomplished - meaning, no good ideas are generated.

Does this describe your brainstorms?

They're held in a featureless conference room, without beverage or food, toys or stimuli, flipchart paper and crayons, and very likely, oxygen. There is no direction, no purpose, no insights, no information, no agenda, and no facilitator. Or, there is a facilitator, and he/she talks solely about their own brilliant ideas. Everyone else is there merely to witness the Immaculate Conception.

The wrong people are invited. Or rather, the right people couldn’t or didn't attend, so the blobs who weren’t invited originally (probably for good reason) become the front-bench by default.
The brainstorm is scheduled for one precise hour, and darn it, people had better invent the perfect, new, unique, never-before-seen idea in that hour. Or else.

If this assessment is accurate, then I too hope brainstorms are dead. They don’t deserve this kind of treatment.

Sarcasm aside, brainstorms can and do work – but only if they're given a bit of care and consideration in advance. A good brainstorm should be like the perfect party: energized and fresh, full of excited people at an unusual location with good catering. (You do know these type of parties are organised by a party planner who works their bum off to make it look spontaneous, don't you?)

As with any meeting, a bit of ground work in advance is important if you want it to be successful. And, I'm not saying this because I might have a book to spruik, but if you've ever been to a successful brainstorm, you know a good facilitator is worth their weight in good ideas.

Curious what it takes? Write me. I'll give you a bit of free advice.

At the same time, there are a number of principles that can be taught to teams to improve their creativity, as well as the quality of the brainstorms. I know I'm going to get e-mails from Important People telling me that creativity cannot be taught, so let's clear the air.

No, you cannot teach people to have eminent creativity - a divine talent bestowed on very few of us, like Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Mozart, Albert Einstein or James Joyce. Yes, you can teach people to increase their everyday creativity.

Among these many daily principles, here's one of the easiest and fastest to put into action: know how and when your brain works most effectively, and leverage that information to be creative.

Most people say ideas come to them when they're doing something else, entirely unrelated to the problem where they need an idea, such as taking a shower, riding public transportation, exercising, and - yes, it's true - sitting on the toilet. The brain also tends to get charged with ideas when it's bombarded with stimulation: working on a project on a different topic, engaging in a lively discussion with someone else, or one or more of the five senses are piqued at the same time, such as experiencing a movie, artwork, music or sport. In either case, your brain is making connections between the current problem and the other disparate information floating around in your head, and these connections become potential ideas.

So, how do you leverage this everyday?

  • Know where and when are you most creative. Where do ideas come to you most easily? What time of day is your brain most active? What inspires you, or relaxes you, so you can think most prolifically? You can use these places, times of day, and sources of inspiration to stimulate your creativity - but only if you know what they are.

  • Learn to be sensitive to what your brain is thinking about when it's doing "something else." Can you apply any of these unrelated thoughts or visceral emotions to the "other" problem as a potential solution?

  • Have pen and paper with you to remember your ideas. You'll no doubt think this is weird, but I have pen and paper in, on or by ... my wallet, briefcase, gym bag, night-stand, all three of my computers, car, kitchen bench-top, television … and yes, even by the toilet.

  • Invite someone else - again, unrelated to your topic - to help you brainstorm. A different perspective can yield great insights. Ask a child to solve your problem is a common answer, but virtually anyone can be a potential partner in brainstorming potential ideas.

  • Seek out activities that deliberately put you into different situations or environments. In fact, when you need an idea, get up off your duff and go for a walk - preferably outside. You'll see and experience something else which might have the potential to connect with your original problem to create a new idea.

  • The last point is the simplest: when you need to brainstorm, stand up. Surely you've noticed that your brain is always more attentive and useful when you're not sitting down, at rest?

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