The 3 Keys to Brainstorming Success (or Failure)
Over the years there’s been a growing debate between those who assert that brainstorming as a process is ineffective (and provide research to support their perspective), and a second group that champion seemingly conflicting studies that suggest brainstorming, when executed properly and employing certain best practices, works very well.
So does brainstorming work, or not? Is it an effective process, or an empty promise? When you gather together a group of people to generate and develop ideas, are you just wasting everyone's time and efforts?
And if brainstorming does, or at least can work, what does it take to increase your odds of success?
The Achilles' Heel of Traditional Brainstorming: The Facilitator
Ineffective brainstorming sessions can almost always be attributed to a lack of knowledge, understanding and skills on the part of the facilitator.
Some of the research mentioned earlier seems to support this conclusion. A study published in 1996 revealed that when group facilitators receive formal training, their groups produce a greater number of concepts.1 A separate study, also published in 1996, went further, and looked at the level of training a facilitator receives. The conclusion: Groups with highly trained facilitators perform better than groups whose facilitators have had less training.2 And a more recent study, conducted at North Carolina State University in 2010, found that “the benefits of high quality brainstorming” kicked in only when a number of best practices were incorporated.3
In our own surveys of over 1,000 individuals from a wide range of industries, fewer than 10 percent had ever received any formal training of any kind in creative problem solving or brainstorming. Those who had typically only learned one or two ideation techniques to use during sessions.
It's no wonder that brainstorming, as traditionally practiced, so often falls short.
Like so many other great ideas before and after it, the breakdown of brainstorming takes place in its execution. In concept, it’s pure genius. In practice, however, somewhat less so.
Traditional brainstorming as actually practiced today is often a loosely structured and improvised affair that leaves way too much to chance. Many people, in an effort to avoid restricting ”creativity,” purposely impose little or no structure on a brainstorming session, generally with disappointing results.
Success Doesn’t Just Happen
Successful group ideation sessions do not happen by accident; they are designed, planned, and executed—by group leaders who know what they’re doing from start to finish. It’s not enough to have good intentions or a strong sense of optimism, a belief in the power of camaraderie, or even abundant talent and creativity. You must have all of that, and more. Thorough, big-picture planning, advance preparation, a sound process, and strong, active leadership throughout the process are essential.
3 Pillars of Brainstorming Success
While multiple factors contribute to a successful brainstorm, we have identified three overall categories, which we refer to as the "3 Pillars of Brainstorming Success."
- Structure—There is a widely accepted belief that creative activities should be loose, free and unfettered by process and structure. But nothing could be further from the truth. All highly creative people follow a process in their creative endeavors, and most will confirm that creativity without structure most often leads to chaos.
Effective brainstorms are planned and follow a thoughtful meeting structure, from start to finish, in order to optimize the flow of ideas and energy and to ensure consistent results. Well structured sessions free the leader to focus on room dynamics and team participation, help to maximize creative performance and productivity and allow the group stay on schedule and make the best possible use of time.
- Leadership Skills—As we mentioned earlier, the vast majority of individuals leading brainstorms have had little to no formal training whatsoever in how to do it. This is fairly remarkable when one considers how important effective idea generation is in today's innovation-driven marketplace, and that brainstorming (as a key tool for generating ideas) has become a critical business process.
Skilled brainstorm leaders, in addition to understanding effective meeting structure, must possess a very specific set of skills to actively guide and inspire a group—the ability to ask powerful questions, techniques for managing a variety of personality types, time management and communication skills, ways of inspiring fresh thinking, etc. It is naive to believe that anyone can masterfully and consistently achieve outstanding brainstorming results without the necessary skill set.
- Idea-Generation Techniques—The vast majority of brainstorm leaders and participants know one idea-generation technique: free association. Someone suggests an idea, which sparks a new thought from someone else, which does the same in someone else, and so on. But while free association is one valid approach for generating ideas, simply “throwing ideas against the wall” is usually not the most effective way to help groups generate an abundance of innovative concepts.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of idea-generation techniques, proven effective for stimulating the flow of original thoughts, helping teams expand and enhance the ideas of others and create totally new directions by combining or exploring various aspects of ideas. Some techniques are effective for coming up with volumes of ideas in a very short time; others help you drill down beyond limiting assumptions to see new possibilities, and still others can help a group “multidimensionalize” a problem from a range of different perspectives. The most successful brainstorm leaders know to employ several idea-generation tools and techniques in a session, to help their groups produce a wider depth and breadth of fresh, new ideas.
The Fun Factor
There is an added benefit to conducting well-structured, skillfully-led sessions utilizing imaginative ideation techniques: people enjoy them.
When a group finds a collaborative process pleasurable, when it makes them feel good about the job they’re doing and the contribution they’re making, when it helps them work more effectively and productively, both individually and with their colleagues, they embrace it. And when teams enthusiastically engage in a brainstorm and freely contribute, the results can only be that much better.
While many typical brainstorming sessions lapse into haphazard, “hit or miss” affairs (and ultimately provide ammunition for all of the "brainstorming doesn't work" detractors), those sessions employing the 3 Pillars of Brainstorming Success are consistently more effective, productive and make a positive impact on employee engagement and morale.
So the next time you experience a less-than-satisfying brainstorming session, ask yourself, "Which of the 3 pillars of success are missing? Structure, leadership skills, idea-generation techniques?" And more important, how you can ensure they will be in place the next time?
- Offner, A. K., Kramer, T. J., & Winter, J. P. “The Effects of Facilitation, Recording, and Pauses on Group Brainstorming.” Small Group Research 27 (1996): 283-298.
- Oxley, N. L., Dzindolet, M. T., & Paulus, P. B. “The effects of facilitators on the performance of brainstorming groups.” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 11 (1996): 633-646.
- Brazel, J. F., Carpenter, T. D., & Jenkins, J. G. “Auditors’ Use of Brainstorming in the Consideration of Fraud: Reports from the Field.” The Accounting Review, Vol. 85, No. 4, (July 2010): 1273–1301.