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Lindsay Bell

Brainstorming for Grown-ups

By: Lindsay Bell | April 9, 2013 | 
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Brainstorming for Grown-upsLet’s play a round of ‘would you rather.’

You know, that game the kids play these days where they ask you things like “Would you rather cut your arm off with a pen knife or poke out both your eyeballs with a dull stick?”

Either way – ouch!

Now how about this one: Would you rather spend 12 hours in a dentist’s chair or 12 hours in a corporate brainstorming session?

I bet many of you would choose the dentist’s chair.

Corporate brainstorming sessions tend to be painful. You sit in a stuffy, windowless room under fluorescent lighting.

If you’re lucky, you actually get a seat at the grown-up table. If not, you’re backed up against the boardroom wall, stuck in an uncomfortable chair balancing your laptop and coffee, while staring at the backs of colleagues’ heads.

Sticks and Stones

Then there’s the schoolyard antics. Ever tried to brainstorm in a room full of your peers (and superiors)? Crickets, you say? Exactly. Who wants to be the first doofus who throws out “the dog barks at midnight” when asked to free associate around, for example, the term “innovative window blinds.”

People don’t, and won’t, get creative because they are too afraid of looking stupid, getting teased, or worse – feeling bullied – because they took a chance and tossed out a supremely crazy idea. And that goes against the very ethos of brainstorming.

The Backstory

The granddaddy of brainstorming is Alex Osborn. In 1948, while a partner in the advertising agency BBDO, he released the book “Your Creative Power.” Osborn’s most followed idea in the surprise bestseller was this one: “When a group works together, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

While the idea that the creative human brain works best in group situations was eventually debunked by a Yale University study in 1958, group creative collaboration was here to stay.

And while Osborne preached ‘safe haven brainstorming’ with no dissent or debate, more recent studies have shown when brainstorming groups are allowed to challenge each other’s ideas (not demean or embarrass mind you), they actually come up with close to 20 percent more new ideas.

Brainstorming for Grown-ups

I’ve worked with some seriously brilliant brainstormers in my day (although we always called it ‘blue sky’ing’ an idea or concept). These people knew how to get individuals down and dirty in their thinking. How to group people into competitive teams to do improv or kindergarden crafts.

How to strip away the veneers of humanity, if you will, so people felt comfortable enough to say the most ridiculous thing that came to mind, in fact the ridiculous’er the better. Healthy debate and constructive criticism were encouraged. It was a bit like Survivor, but without the sand fleas and swimming challenges.

Brainstorming has evolved into an invaluable tool for most businesses. But please. Allow contributing staffers to feel safe from immature schoolyard bullying. And try and take your brainstorming sessions out of the corporate boardroom. Rent a space. Sit on a patio if the weather’s nice. If you must stay in the office break people into smaller teams and toss them into different – less claustrophobic – offices.

Most importantly, stay respectful of one another, and aim for large quantities of ideas instead of immediate quality. Who knows? Your group might just come up with something that gets you written up in the history books.

About Lindsay Bell


Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

86 comments
JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

This is good stuff Lindsay. I'd add a couple of small things.... 

a) Brainstorm regularly so people don't feel like they have to save up for Earth Shattering Ideas 

 b) Make a point of implementing short and medium range goals/ideas so people can see the positive effect of participating honestly and thoughtfully in brainstorm sessions. Modeling is so so important in that situation and saying "I take you seriously" isn't nearly as effective as showing it.

PattiRoseKnight
PattiRoseKnight

Key to an open brainstorm is the ability to take constructive criticism....it's not personal; it's business....my favorite quote from The Godfather!

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

i think doing 12 hours of anything in one sitting is going to be the last time I do it!  Let's go for Brain-Tropical-Storming......  20-30 minutes of hard, fast - and very productive idea showers.....

Then everyone retire to the Patio for Pina Coladas

BethMosher
BethMosher

I currently work in an environment with a VERY small staff and really miss my days at my large PR firm where we'd all huddle in a room and brainstorm for clients. I miss having lots of creative people around to bounce ideas off of. So now, a few of us who work for separate companies who are all in similar situations like me - we get together a few times a year for 2-3 hour brainstorming sessions. Each person gets 30-45 minutes for everyone to brainstorm on each other's current project/company etc. Everyone gets equal time, there is lots of creative energy and new ideas, there's no cost involved and each person facilitates his own topic - it works very well. 


Patti Rose Knight
Patti Rose Knight

brainstorming vs any time at all at the dentist - dentist has never been a pleasant thing for me

DwayneAlicie
DwayneAlicie

This makes me want to go brainstorm something! One thing that comes up for me, though, is that I just feel distracted in a brainstorm sessions if it's not structured somehow. One or two people do all the talking, and I end up just listening. I definitely do not think out loud. Of course .... the creative moment, in my experience, happens when you're not actively talking about it, anyway. It's when a new connection goes live between two previously unrelated things and you're like, "wow." It could happen while you're waiting your turn to add something to the whiteboard, but it's more likely to happen while you're washing your hair in the shower. For me at least. But then when that new idea gets vetted and added onto or pared down by others, that's where the magic of collaboration happens!

Seriously, now I want to go barnstorm something. Er, brainstorm... ( I love that, @RobBiesenbach !)

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Great post Lindsay! "strip away the veneers of humanity, if you will, "- oh I WILL. "Society is a veneer for the savagery of humanity" was the thesis of my grade 10 paper on The Pearl...but that's neither here nor there...

Yes- corporate brainstorming can be terrible. And also amazing! I come up with 25 gazillion half baked ideas a week. With the right team around me to help cull the go-nowhere plans and flesh out the stubs of valuable thinking, it can change an endless onslaught of RAT's monkey mind in to actionable items. Of course, I happily take on the roll of being the wild one in such forums- a little "dog barks at midnight" can draw a laugh and relax the tension. Much like improv, even if an idea isn't workable, keep with the "yes" vibe- nothing curbs the creative juices like an eye roll or a taunt, however it is intended. Also (and yes, here is the teacher in me!!!)- the person leading the conversation HAS to take accountability for creating the environment for trust. If ideas are being recorded, any and all ideas get written down- even the obviously silly and goofy. The team must know that this is a true safe place. I once watched someone teaching and a student offered an obviously wrong answer, and even thought this was brainstorming, the teacher didn't bother to record that idea with the rest. I could watch the poor child wilt in their seat, and know that next time they won't contribute, and that next time, they very well could have the thought that breaks open the challenge. 

creativeoncall
creativeoncall

I worked at Mr. Osborn's agency for years (decades after he was there), and by that time, at least, brainstorming was not so much the vogue  – frankly, we made fun of it as a crutch for people who couldn't come up with a decent idea on their own.  I think it is often best used as "ideation research," that is, as a way to invest a broad group in the process by gathering a range of "notions" that might be relevant to a more focused "idea," which in turn might contribute to the undefinable leap to an original, inspired "concept."  However, to get to those more refined, valuable creative stages, you also have to invest in people who are inherently creative (and I don't just mean writers and designers). I find that one of the best creative turbo-chargers is just have two or three people really banging ideas around, confident enough in themselves to take honest, immediate critique not as attack but has refining fire.

adammbsmith
adammbsmith

Hey @belllindsay, I know exactly what you're getting at, because people seem terrified of shouting out ideas in case they get shot down in flames. Interestingly enough, I've been in some amazing creative brainstorming sessions, which have stopped abruptly as soon as a Senior Manager has decided to walk in on the session. So perhaps the 'fear factor' lies with business leaders more than peers?

On the flip side, when I was a copywriter working for a corporate events company, the MD would gather marketing + random people from the business, give us all chocolate and fizzy drinks, big paper pads and colourful crayons.

Suffice to say we came up with some pretty bonkers stuff in those sessions... which usually overran into 2 hours. But they were awesome! We shouted out stupid ideas, we laughed lots and we always left the room having created some great events to pitch to our clients every week without fail.

Hopefully my life stories have been entertaining and given someone some fresh ideas :)

belllindsay
belllindsay

@JoeCardillo Great points Joe, particularly the first one. Regular brainstorming sessions keep the juices flowing. Also, to that point, all brainstorming sessions don't have to be 'pre-planned and structured'. Sometimes a quick coffee break with some key colleagues or an impromptu after work drinks session can be just as effective - and much more fun! 

lkpetrolino
lkpetrolino

@belllindsay 'the best of Lindsay Bell delivered to you through the tweets of Laira Petrolino' epic for sure!!!

belllindsay
belllindsay

@Nic_Cartwright Well, yes, 12 hours might have been a bit of an exaggeration. ;) But the patio idea....? I'm SO with you on that one!! 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@BethMosher I love this idea - as I was mentioning in my comment to @EdenSpodek below - it's a great way to get some fun brainstorming done when you work from home or  have limited (or NO) staff or colleagues around you! Also, I would imagine that many of the ideas that you come up with for each other are also flexible - and can be altered and tweaked to fit each other's current project/company - in effect you are ALL getting a full 2-3 hour session! :) 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@dwaynealicie @RobBiesenbach I want to barnstorm too!! :D I agree Dwayne - studies have shown that most great ideas happen when doing the most mundane tasks - housecleaning, showering, gardening, whatever. The brain just clears itself of all the flotsam and jetsam usually cluttering it up during a normal work day. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@RebeccaTodd My darling Rebecca - you are NOT your typical corporate...er...person! LOL You, my lady, are a KOOK! I would actually pay to attend a brainstorming session with you! It would be off the charts!! You're right though - having an incredible team around you is so key - brainstorming sessions don't always have to include only creative types either - toss in a few strategists or the odd tunnel-vision thinker and you have the right formula to take the craziest of ideas and hone and narrow them down to greatness! Also, have I told you lately that I love you? ps - it's getting close to FRIDAY! xo

belllindsay
belllindsay

@creativeoncall I simply can't add anything else to what seems to be a PERFECT comment Chuck. Props for noting that creative people aren't *always* the ones in the stereotypically creative jobs. You might have a killer creative mind sitting in your HR department or on your admin staff (in smaller companies, obviously) that would be a fantastic addition to a brainstorming session - not to mention a whole other way of looking at an idea!

belllindsay
belllindsay

@adammbsmith You have exactly nailed on the head the types of sessions I am speaking of Adam. Get silly. Have your teams do outrageous things. Make sure there is PlayDough available (we always had PlayDough - helps you think). And release some of your inner craziness!! The ideas might be insanely off the wall at first - but when you peel away some of the crazy layers, inevitably you find a diamond of an idea underneath it all. One you would never have come up with by sitting in a stuffy room getting glowered at my senior execs. 

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@belllindsay @JoeCardillo Totally. It's kind of intimidating when someone schedules 8 hours of brainstorm, so working in quick chunks is both effective and a bunch more fun.

EdenSpodek
EdenSpodek

@belllindsay @dwaynealicie @RobBiesenbach I typically brainstorm best while going for a walk. As for team brainstorms, to Dwayne's point, there needs to be a leader who ensures everyone feels engaged, has a chance to participate and the discussion isn't being dominated by one or two people in order to be productive.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@belllindsay I like how you called @RebeccaTodd a kook and somehow it was the most boss compliment I've heard in a long while. Teach us the Jedi Way, master =)

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@EdenSpodek @belllindsay @dwaynealicie @RobBiesenbach I am the same way. When I get up and move, I get the best ideas -- walking, at the gym, in the shower, wherever. I personally am more of an individual than team thinker, so when I'm in a well-run "barnstorm" I'm always surprised by the positive results.

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