How to brainstorm better—and why it's ok to have bad ideas

When was the last time you had to sit through a company brainstorming meeting? Before conducting any type of workshop with our clients, one of the first questions we ask is, “Have you ever taken part in any type of ideation activities before? If so, what didn’t work about those meetings?”

If you’ve been through a brainstorming workshop before, you won’t be surprised by some of the most common answers to those questions:

  • The session had a lot of energy, but I don’t think anything actionable came out of it
  • The conversation sort of wandered, and I’m not sure we made any progress
  • I really couldn’t tell you what all those exercises (often with Playdough or Legos) were supposed to accomplish
  • People seemed easily distracted by their normal day-to-day obligations and kept checking their phones

A common fear among workshop participants is that they won’t be able to generate any good ideas or that their ideas won’t be as good as the ideas of their colleagues. That fear isn’t surprising in the least. If you’re not the kind of person who’s regularly generating, vetting, and applying new ideas, the thought of having to do so in front of your co-workers can be mind-bending.

No matter who you are, this fear of not having enough good ideas is normal, and that’s because today’s brainstorming workshops focus too heavily on the output, which is to say the solution or the product to be built, instead of the problems to be solved.

Today’s brainstorming workshops focus too heavily on the output instead of the problems to be solved.

Start with a problem

When you start with a solution-first approach to brainstorming, it’s very easy to second-guess your ideas or invalidate them too quickly based on criteria like feasibility of creation or the existence of market competition that would make the job of marketing and selling the solution more difficult than it might be worth. The solutions-first approach to ideation is heavily biased toward ideating around the current state, customer norms, or competitor products. In the end, the “ideas” you generate look pretty similar to what already exists in the market.

A problem-first approach demands an entirely different mindset. Taking this a step further, in his book describing the Jobs To Be Done theory of innovation, Clayton Christensen writes, “A jobs [to be done] perspective can change how you see the world so significantly that major new growth opportunities arise where none had seemed possible before. In fact, if it feels like there isn’t room for growth in a market, it could actually be a signal that you’ve defined the job poorly.”

A jobs [to be done] perspective can change how you see the world so significantly that major new growth opportunities arise where none had seemed possible before. In fact, if it feels like there isn’t room for growth in a market, it could actually be a signal that you’ve defined the job poorly.

With this in mind, it’s possible that your inability to generate good ideas has nothing to do with you at all. Instead, it has everything to do with the way you’re expected to brainstorm. If a brainstorming session begins with solutions instead of problems, change the tone.

Unlearn Consistently

You’re a lot more creative than you give yourself credit for. However, most organizations don’t have the processes in place to continuously grow this creative muscle in their employees. One of the primary reasons problem-first brainstorming prompts work so well is because they force brainstorm participants to believe in the possibility of a future they hadn’t conceived before.

When I lead workshops with our clients, I use the words “suspend disbelief” a lot. I tell participants that, for a short period of time, it’s their chance to let go of everything they believe is possible about their company, their products, or their industry.

Of course, just telling people to suspend disbelief isn’t enough to prompt action. That’s why we regularly experiment with different exercises in unlearning to unlock the creative problem solving capacity all participants are capable of. One simple exercise for unlearning is to ask a group of participants to line themselves up in order of their birth place, from east to west. There’s one catch: participants can’t talk during the short exercise. During the exercise, often two or three competing strategies emerge among participants, but ultimately one organically rises to the top.

This simple exercise can be profoundly frustrating, even to an organization’s most effectively leaders. Those who have he hardest time unlearning often want to ask clarifying questions, such as, “Where do we start on the map?” Of course, the secret here is that they can start wherever they want, but they need to agree together (without talking of course). Unlearning exercises unlock all kinds of latent potential and ultimately create a foundation for profound success.

Lead Toward Action

Your next brainstorming meeting may be full of energy and great ideas, but if your team can’t decide what they should do next, you’ve wasted everyone’s time. At Punchkick, our workshop flow is designed to move from Big Ideas to tangible steps to accomplish those ideas. We often refer to those steps as items in a backlog, and like any good software consulting practice, we help our clients prioritize that backlog so that the most important tasks rise to the top organically, and can be accomplished first.

Because even the greatest intentions can still lead to inaction, we prioritize tasks on a simple, two dimensional scale. Workshop participants vote privately on each task’s perceived impact to their company as well as the task’s overall feasibility. And, since each person votes privately, we’re able to remove some of the bias that comes in “follow the leader” scenarios.

The best part of prioritizing discrete tasks, however, is that it becomes very clear, very quickly who in the room will be accountable for following up on the most important tasks. One step we don’t often take is to actually assign tasks to individual participants simply because participants naturally assign themselves to tasks by the end of the day.

Get Started with Better Brainstorming

The best ideas have two parts: the core of the idea and the path for brining that idea to life. Most companies struggle with one or the other, but the best companies recognize their weakness and attack them with a structured workshop that helps participants suspend disbelief and lead toward action.

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