10 rules of brainstorming: How to make it work for you

Whether you are trying to solve a problem, generate new ideas or clarify your thoughts, nothing works better than a good old-fashioned brainstorm session. Creative professionals use brainstorming to generate innovative ideas and creative approaches to market our clients’ products and solutions, as well as to solve problems they may have such as lack of brand awareness (“Company A? Never heard of ’em.”) or damage control (“The last version of Widget A caught on fire. Widget B won’t.”)

But anyone can use brainstorming to develop strong creative ideas faster and more efficiently. Heck, I brainstorm at home with my kids! But it’s important to set some ground rules to make your brainstorming session productive:

1. Understand your team. See each person in the brainstorm as a unique, creative individual. A junior-level staff member may not have found his or her voice yet or feel comfortable expressing it–or expresses it too much. Another executive may not be comfortable in the nebulous land of ideas. When you understand where they are in the process, you can tailor the brainstorm session to better fit your team.

2. Have a plan. Brainstorming without a plan is like trying to build a skyscraper without a blueprint. It can be a detailed creative brief, a memo or an email articulating your objectives. Distribute the plan at least 24 hours prior to your brainstorming session so everyone has a chance to read it, digest it and start simmering on it. They’ll come to the brainstorming session prepared and hopefully ready to start bouncing ideas around.

3. Meet in a dedicated space. I’ve brainstormed in airports, pubs, on the phone, in my basement, in coffee shops–but not everyone is comfortable throwing out ideas at all, let alone in public spaces. A room with a door can lessen distractions and make your team feel safer to go out on the creative ledge.

4. Set a time limit. An hour is plenty of time in my book, but a deadline adds necessary pressure to keep things moving. (Creative people, for example, can chat forever about ideas. At some point, we have to shut up and actually do the work instead of just talking about the work.) When the time is up, review the results and your objectives, give people time to regroup, then set up another brainstorm if necessary.

5. Moderate. Designate a moderator who will keep the discussion on track. The moderator should also make sure everyone has a chance to participate, inviting quiet members to speak and asking chatty folks to hold up and let someone else talk for a while.

6. Keep it positive. Establish up front that there will be no criticism of ideas. Ban the words “no” and “can’t.” Brainstorming is about generating ideas. The second you start ripping those ideas apart or saying no, people shut down. You will become the teacher in high school who shot down their dreams of being a creative in the first place. You don’t want to be the dream killer. You want to be the dream builder. Saying no kills the spirit of the brainstorm.

Remember, you are working in the land of ideas and creativity where everything is subjective and there is no clear right or wrong way to go. Even if you know an idea is not quite right, find some aspect of it that is working–is it different from what competitors are doing? Does it explore an issue in a new way? This can lead the whole group down a new path of thinking.

7. Get silly, get inspired.  Brainstorming is about generating new ideas and ways of looking at things, so don’t be afraid to add some silliness or props that help get your creative juices flowing. That’s why a lot of creative folks keep interesting, fun things around their creative spaces. One art director I know keeps a collection of robots in his cubicle. A writer friend has puppets on her desk while another artist friends displays found objects from nature in her office.

I’ve sat in on very corporate brainstorm sessions that were like going to church–hushed tones, only senior level people get to speak and everyone else just sings their praises. This is not brainstorming, this is corporate bullshit. Remember: brainstorming = fun.

8. Write it all down. White board, chalk board, poster board, whatever you’ve got, write it all down. If things get off track or you get stuck, you can retrace the evolution of your ideas and regain your focus or see if anything fresh pops up.

9. The first idea is not always the best idea. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years of being in the creative business, it’s that the first idea is often the one that just barely scratches the surface. You have to dig deeper and give people time to unearth what’s below the surface. Often the first few ideas act as stepping stones to the idea that ends up being “The One.” It’s a team effort. It’s an evolution. Wait for it.

10. Be a kind voice of creative reason. I once had a very wise boss who always said, “Sometimes, we have to save them [clients, managers, fill in the blank] from themselves.” I agree–as long as you do it in a way that leaves everyone’s dignity intact and keeps the pipeline of ideas open so everyone feel like they are creative and actively contributing. That is the true spirit of brainstorming.


4 thoughts on “10 rules of brainstorming: How to make it work for you

  1. I’m so glad you brought up #10. I think that’s the hardest one of all. It takes a lot of fortitude and patience to be that voice of reason sometimes. People’s egos are so easily damaged that you have to be very tactful in how you approach it.

  2. Hi Christy,

    I think your point about having a plan is absolutely critical. I’ve watched so many clients approach a brainstorm session with no plan and the result is usually disastrous. That’s one of the things that inspired my to start my site http://brainboltz.com. It’s dedicated to offering free, how-to guides for a variety of brainstorm techniques. Check it out when you get a chance, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Great post.


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