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What’s Your Brainstorming Style?

Every day, in conference rooms around the world, tens of thousands of brainstorms take place. Workgroups come together (often with trepidation) to generate fresh ideas, solve problems, explore opportunities and identify new ways to achieve success. In fact, in a world where advancing technology allows more and more tasks to be accomplished by fewer and fewer people, the brainstorm is one of the few remaining collaborative business processes.

Some question the effectiveness of brainstorming, and for good reason. Most sessions aren’t planned or facilitated very well, and all-too-often deliver disappointing results in terms of the breadth and depth of ideas actually generated, as well as a less-than-pleasant experience for participants.

However numerous studies show that when brainstorms are conducted well, the opposite is the case – the process is consistently productive and gratifying. So apparently the problem isn’t brainstorming, it’s brainstorming as typically practiced.

So just what does the typical brainstorm look like? Here are several of the most common types of brainstorming experiences, each of which is a reflection of the personal style of the individual leading the session, the participating group and the prevailing business culture in which the brainstorm takes place.

Pressure Cooker
Don’t you realize that generating ideas is serious business? The Pressure Cooker brainstorm is intense, overly focused and not the least bit fun. In fact, just a few moments of spontaneous laughter or lightness is frowned upon, and the offenders are reprimanded for “not taking the task seriously.” The team has work to do; this is no time for play! Of course, the most effective brainstorms always contain a degree of lightness and joyful exploration and wonder. They are a creative process, after all. An overly serious environment reduces spontaneity and can literally inhibit or even shut down creative thinking. Try approaching even the most serious challenges with a sense of childlike curiosity. Think of brainstorms as “play with purpose.”

Margaritaville
The antithesis of the Pressure Cooker, in these excessively laid back, “no worries” brainstorms, everyone wastes away…their time, that is. No structure, no clear goals or objectives, no leadership skills, all contribute to an enjoyable, but otherwise worthless experience. The conversations veer repeatedly off topic, the fun and lightness referred to earlier escalate to the level of silliness, and little, if anything, gets accomplished. Many people fall into the Margaritaville trap because they believe that brainstorms, as a creative activity, should be loose and unstructured. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a well-known fact among creative professionals that creativity without structure leads to chaos. The most effective brainstorms always provide an organized process to help keep people’s creative thinking focused and productive.

Friday the 13th
These high-stakes brainstorms inspire fear in even the most courageous of participants. There is danger lurking at every turn, and you never know who’s going to get their heads chopped off next—simply for sharing an idea that the resident “Idea Assassin” feels is unworthy of consideration. And not only are potentially great ideas systematically killed off…so is everyone’s enthusiasm and willingness to participate. These brainstorms typically start off uncomfortable and end up in utter discouragement. In contrast, high-powered brainstorming sessions are always “judgment-free zones,” where everyone feels safe to share even their most off-the-wall ideas.

Déjà Vu
Been there, done that. These brainstorming sessions feel eerily the same—as the last one, and the one before that and the one before that. Same people, same group dynamics, same areas of exploration, and worst of all, same tired, old ideas. When you remain in safe, familiar, territory and never venture out from the status quo, how can you NOT generate the same results? And when you have no fresh, new thinking, there is no innovation. Successful teams regularly inject their brainstorms with a healthy dose of diversity in personalities, background and points of view, plus new types of ideation techniques to engage minds in new and different ways.

Wrestlemania
Let’s get ready to rumble! This brainstorm style is a true battle royale, where two or more participants duke it out to decide whose ideas are best. Funny thing is, it’s always their own ideas they’re fighting for. Most of the time one or two strong, imposing personalities totally dominate these sessions, leaving very little room for others to share.  The conflict rages on throughout the brainstorm, and when the dust settles, everyone is emotionally bruised, battered and exhausted. In contrast, great brainstorms feel effortless. Teams quickly get into “the zone” and stay there. Time flies, and so do the game-changing ideas!

Of course, these are just a few examples. There are as many different styles of brainstorms as there are brainstorm leaders and participants. It is human nature to superimpose our own personalities, interests, beliefs, insecurities, preferences, etc. onto whatever we create, and brainstorms are no exception.

By all means, make your brainstorms your own. Research, learn and make use of your favorite ideation techniques. Try different icebreaker activities to get your group aligned and collaborating quickly. Just make sure that whatever you do, you always foster an environment where participants feel safe in sharing, where they can embrace and enjoy their creative spirits, and where the seeds of innovation can take root and grow.