The Better Brainstorm

3 Ingredients for Success

We’ve all participated in a brainstorming session that resulted in only a drizzle of novel thinking. So, why are some brainstorming sessions more successful than others?

My brother, a firefighter, told me that in order for there to be a fire you need heat, oxygen and fuel. I think the same is true for a successful brainstorm. It’s just that in a creative environment we define heat, oxygen and fuel differently.

Generate Heat

Everyone in the session needs to feel the heat a bit during the session. “Heat” is created from everyone feeling accountable for the results of the brainstorm — no one is allowed to loaf. Two easy ways to generate some heat are competitive pressure (e.g., assigning teams to compete against each other), and peer pressure (e.g., having representatives present their ideas to the group). When colleagues see that there is some sort of reward for the effort or disincentive for not participating fully, I’ve noticed that the intensity and focus of the session improves.

Pump Oxygen into the Room

The word oxygen comes from the Greek words oxys (sharp) and genes (producer or generator). When I speak of  having “oxygen” in a brainstorm I mean making sure your “sharp generators” are in the room. These people will breathe life into a brainstorm. Sharp generators look at a problem from all angles. They aren’t afraid of being wrong. They are willing to build off other ideas and capable of connecting disparate thoughts. And perhaps best of all, they are comfortable with ambiguity.

Sharp generators create an atmosphere of “renewable energy” for the session, maintaining momentum and providing practical optimism when others in the group see obstacles or are jaded from previous failures. Sharp generators aren’t compelled to blast down a singular path like a rocket, putting on blinders and focusing solely on one idea. Rather, they float above the problem like a hot air balloon — high enough to keep a wide perspective, but close enough to the ground to make out some of the details.

Fuel for Thought

For a good brainstorm, you need an exercise to serve as fuel for the heat and oxygen you’ve generated. It needs to provide focus for the session and encourage new perspectives. Additionally, it needs to set general guidelines to drive the group toward delivering new ideas and solutions.

There are a number of good brainstorming exercises out there. Do a Google search and you’re sure to come across thousands. However, some are better than others. My recommendation is to look for exercises that:

  • Keep sessions fun, engaging and moving
  • Create a goal for the session
  • Encourage collaboration between all participants
  • Re-focus energy on what is possible–not just probable
  • Maximize the quantity of ideas being generated – not the quality (there’s plenty of opportunity to apply filters later)

In my next post I’ll share a couple of exercises I’ve used to fuel successful brainstorms and help brands connect better with their customers.

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