3 Ways to Fail at Brainstorming (and How to Succeed)

By: TSP Blog | @TSProckstars


It’s a safe assumption to say that many of us have been asked at some point in our educational or professional careers to participate in a brainstorm session. While it seems like an ideal way to gather innovative ideas, the usefulness of brainstorming is frequently debated within the business world. 

Imagine a typical brainstorm session — a group files into a room and are briefed on a task or issue. The group is then advised to find a conclusion for said task or issue by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. To give you more background about this group technique (that was first introduced in the 1950s), it is based on four rules: 

  • Generate as many ideas as possible
  • Prioritize unusual or original ideas
  • Combine and refine the ideas generated
  • Abstain from criticism during the exercise

Sounds great, right? You might want to reconsider…we’ve provided a few reasons that a group brainstorm might not be the best solution. More importantly, we’ve also provided a few tips to ensure that an individual’s ideas and creativity are not stifled in the workplace.   

Every meeting should have a clearly defined purpose (even a brainstorm session). If you are leading a brainstorm meeting, the first step in guaranteeing a successful session is to define the objective or challenge. Defining the task at hand can help you and your team determine what will make the project successful and what can add value for a client or customer.

Once determining the focus of each brainstorm session, the organizer of the meeting should provide team member a specific problem or opportunity statement that describes what the session is trying to achieve. From there, each member of the session can research background information or begin to gather their thoughts prior to collectively meeting. Still not sure if you are prepared for your next brainstorm session? Check out this article from the Huffington Post that provides the do’s and don’ts of successfully preparing for brainstorming. 

Groupthink is real, whether you are a believer or non-believer of this psychological phenomenon. Originally coined by a social psychologist in 1972, this term occurs when a group has the desire for harmony or conformity, which results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. While groupthink and brainstorming appear to go together, any organizer of a brainstorm session can avoid this concept by three simple techniques.

First, the organizer needs to assemble a diverse team from different disciplines, cultures and age groups. Roles should then be identified for each member of the brainstorm session that could include responsibilities for the client or customer, facilitator and the resources (aka remaining team members). These responsibilities could include managing the brainstorm process non-judgmentally, drawing out the range of perspectives or even taking notes. Lastly, the organizer of a session should always encourage individuals to not be afraid of throwing out all considerations (remember — there is never a dumb idea) because you don’t know how that idea can transform into something more.

If a manager decides to forgo brainstorming as a team altogether, the Financial Times explains the benefit of brainstorming alone in order to capture a team member’s truest individuality and ingenuity. 

Lastly, another important element for improving group brainstorms and encouraging better ideas is to eliminate social loafing. Social loafing is when individuals view their own efforts as less important in a group setting, so they contribute less effort. This concept is a major reason why groups often far worse than individuals working alone.

If a manager sees this trend occur during brainstorm sessions, they need to reiterate the value of everyone’s contribution and the meaningfulness of the brainstorm. More importantly, people become more involved if they think they are the only ones responsible for the task or problem. With this notion in mind, assign each member of the brainstorm session a separate and identifiable portion of the discussion. If all else fails, keep in mind you don’t want to be that person who doesn’t pull his or her weight at the office.

While there are additional ways to improve group brainstorms, the above tips can set you up for success (regardless if you are brainstorming with one other individual or a group of seven). Brainstorming is not always for the faint of heart, and successful brainstorm sessions give each member the opportunity to effectively prepare, think independently and maintain accountability. Let us know if you have any other group brainstorming tricks of the trade by commenting!