Want Better Ideas? Then Stop Brainstorming!

I used to be a fan of brainstorming. What could be better for generating ideas than gathering your team around a table, presenting the challenge, and then letting the ideas flow! No bad ideas here! Just open the mental floodgates and let the brilliance pour out! Each idea sparking another, and another! Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

Except it doesn’t work.

Brainstorming-despite the positive press it’s gotten, and still gets-doesn’t work. Why? Two words: human nature.

As humans (sorry puppies, I’m speaking to the humans here), we can be influenced and swayed by authority. When it comes to brainstorming, there are two types of authority that are particularly prevalent: the authority of the leader and the authority of the crowd.

Here’s how they play out:
You’re in a brainstorming session. Frank, sitting across from you, throws out an idea (because remember, there are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session!). But you notice the boss give a slight, flickering frown. Prior to noticing the boss’s expression, you were going to toss out a similar idea, building on Frank’s. But now you decide to hold back and see how this plays out.

In the meantime, Sloane shares a thought, and you can feel the excitement! The majority of the team is instantly enthusiastic! You don’t fully agree with Sloane, but it’s clear you’re in the minority. Sensing the current, you decide to get on board. And Sloane wins the day, while Frank fades into oblivion.

Brainstorming is supposed to be judgment-free. But we’re human, and we are influenced by those around us.
So is there a better way? Absolutely!

When I was the Executive Producer of a hit comedy TV show, our job was to be creative, week after week after week. And over the years, I gradually discovered that the best ideas tended to be generated individually, and then developed collectively. Here’s how it would work.

When we had our weekly “pitch meetings” (the meeting where we pitched our ideas for the upcoming show), each writer would come to the meeting with the ideas and scripts that they’d come up with, generally on their own. When an idea got a favorable response, we’d work as a team to develop and improve it.

How can you put this technique to work?

The next time you and your team are in need of a creative idea, instead of holding a brainstorming session, try this process:

1. Gather the team and clearly define the question for which you’re seeking ideas (and make sure you’re defining the right question!).

2. Send them off to generate individual ideas. But here’s the important part: give them a quota and a time limit. The key is to give them not quite enough time to reach the quota. For example, you might say, “I want 20 ideas from each of you, and you have a half hour. Come back here with your ideas in 30 minutes.” The odds are that few, if any, of your team members will be able to generate 20 ideas in 30 minutes. But that’s not the point. The point is force them to think beyond the easy answers; to force them to get creative.

3. Now have your group meeting where each person pitches their ideas. Because the ideas are written down, there should be no withholding because of peer pressure. Another option is to gather the group and immediately have each person pass their ideas to the person on their right, and have that person read the ideas.

By using this (or a similar) system, you get around the bias of human nature. You’ll find that you’ll get more ideas, and better ideas, than you would with a pure brainstorming session.

It certainly worked for my team-and I’m certain it will work for yours as well.