Why brainstorming meetings rarely work

Meetings are conducted for a variety of reasons – decision making, company or department updates, project updates, brainstorming and more. One of the more challenging or difficult meetings to conduct effectively is a brainstorming meeting. It sounds like a great idea, but too often the meetings are run in a way that people don’t feel free to share their ideas. You’ve probably attended these meetings. You’re told it’s a brainstorming meeting and “no idea is a bad idea,” but after sharing a thought someone says, “That would never work.” Or “We can’t afford that.” In other words, the “No idea is a bad idea” premise is just lip service.

For brainstorming meetings to work you have to create a safe, open space where even a seemingly bad idea is a good idea. How do you do that? Well, your thinking needs to change about these meetings. Here’s a dictionary definition of the word brainstorming:

“A conference technique of solving specific problems, amassing information, stimulating creative thinking, developing new ideas, etc., by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.”

The two most important words there are “unrestrained” and “spontaneous.” So often brainstorming fails because people aren’t encouraged to be unrestrained. They are often constrained by negative feedback or feel that they can’t share an unformed idea. The participants may imply that all ideas must make sense and be doable. The other reason brainstorming meetings often don’t work is it’s expected that the meeting be orderly. However, an orderly meeting will not allow participants to spontaneously share ideas and thoughts.

An effective brainstorming meeting is messy, sometimes loud and chaotic. People should be encouraged to throw out ideas which others add to rather than negate. To have them work, you must use the “yes, and…” technique. That is when someone shares an idea or thought and others positively acknowledge it and add to it. Let’s say a group is brainstorming about an employee recognition program and someone says “We could have free pizza every Friday afternoon.” Another person says, “Who doesn’t like pizza! What if we had a pizza award program, where employees who were recognized by coworkers that week got to have a pizza party?” See how that works? When people are allowed to throw out any idea and all ideas are considered valid it creates an environment where creativity and innovation more easily flows. One person’s seemingly strange/unformed/silly idea can spur other ideas that may eventually lead to the perfect plan.

Next time you have a brainstorming meeting, start the meeting by laying out the ground rules. State that all ideas are good ideas and ideas don’t need to be fully formed or fleshed out. Tell people they have to be positive and add to rather than criticize other’s ideas. Tell them it doesn’t have to be an orderly conversation, encourage shout outs, interruptions and enthusiasm. Then, hand everyone a soft toy. Tell them that if anyone says something negative about another person’s idea the others can throw their toy at the negative nelly and say, “Give it a chance!” At the very least, you’ll have lot of laughter.

Happy brainstorming!

2 thoughts on “Why brainstorming meetings rarely work

  1. Beth Buelow

    Thanks, Arden, for bringing the “yes, and” spirit to brainstorming! You’re so right… saying “anything goes” is usually qualified by “only if it’s realistic/if we can afford it/if the boss says it’s okay.” Not safe!

    I’d like to add to this an introvert perspective: I typically despise traditional brainstorming because it’s verbally oriented. Introverts like to think (and often, write) before we speak, and brainstorming often is most fun and productive for the folks in the room who think and process out loud. At the very least, it’s nice if the focus question or problem is shared in advance, so that internal processors can prepare and therefore be ready to jump into the discussion more easily.

    When I give a communications presentation, I share two alternative approaches that still honor the “unrestrained” and “spontaneous” spirit of group brainstorming: brain writing and one-to-many brainstorming. Both start out with a short time in individual thought, and both grow in interaction as the process unfolds. They respect different processing styles (introverts get to think and write, extroverts get to speak and bounce ideas), remove the problem of certain voices being louder than others, and level the hierarchical playing field that also gets in the way of a free exchange of ideas.

    But neither method involves a toy… hmmmm… will have to incorporate that brilliant idea!

  2. Arden Clise

    Beth,
    You’re absolutely right, traditional brainstorming does favor extroverts. I’m so glad you shared ways you can make a brainstorming meeting more introvert friendly. Great tips!!

    Yes, toys always help.

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