Ideas are fragile—they’re easily shattered by snubs, smirks, and scorn. And brainstorms are equally delicate. The wrong words at the wrong time bring brainstorming to a screeching halt.
The function of brainstorming has received its share of badmouthing in recent years, often for good cause. And many of those problems stem from statements made before or during brainstorming sessions.
For healthy brainstorming and bountiful ideas, always steer clear of these seven sentences:
Brainstorming should be business as usual—a familiar and constant face in the workplace. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with heading to a neighborhood park or coffee shop to collaborate from time to time; a change of scenery often inspires fresh thinking. But if you and your team constantly delay brainstorming until you can leave the premises, you’ll lose the readiness and spontaneity of in-the-moment collaborations. And many brainstorms will never occur.
Ideas have short shelf lives—they need expression while thoughts are flowing and passion is high. Carve out collaboration spaces in your workplace—nearby areas that don’t require booking a conference room or going across town. Be sure your idea-generating space is readily available and easy to access, even if it’s only the far corner of a room, a seldom-used hallway, or an empty staircase.
Lots of times we hear this call for action at the beginning of a brainstorming session. And what happens? The usual suspects hold court while everybody else doodles, daydreams, or checks their iPhones.
Brainstorming is typically more potent and participatory if each person first spends a few minutes quickly writing down ideas before shifting into an open forum.
"Groups inhibit a lot of creative expression," Robert Epstein, former editor of Psychology Today, told Scientific American. "Dominant people tend to do most of the talking, for one thing. But when people shift, everyone ends up working on the problem."
Try this at your next brainstorming session: Introduce the problem and distribute Post-it pads. During five minutes of silence, participants fast and furiously fill their pads with as many ideas as possible. Place the notes on a wall, briefly reading and organizing ideas. Then shift into open brainstorming. If your team is like most, you’ll enjoy a much more energetic and productive session.
Bad idea. Brainstorming is right-brained, and editing is left-brained, and never the twain shall meet. If you tell participants to concentrate on generating one great idea, you’ll put chokeholds on every creative mind in the room.
Instead, before brainstorming begins, schedule a follow-up session for examining and selecting ideas generated during the brainstorm. Remind participants that final ideas will emerge in that subsequent session, not during the sharing of ideas.
After all, brainstorming is about quantity, not quality; about multiplication, not subtraction. The objective should be to walk out with buckets of ideas, not one idea carefully polished and perched on a pillow.
This statement usually goes along with the previous, one-great-idea directive. Whoever says these words is determined to save time and energy by reining in farfetched notions. And by doing so, he or she guarantees a hefty round of drab, humdrum ideas.
Brainstorming should be a safe haven for playfulness, experimentation, and a healthy dose of nonsense. Because from nonsensical imagination often come those original ideas that make perfect sense.
"The importance of nonsense hardly can be overstated," wrote Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu Li Masters. "True artists and true physicists know that nonsense is only that which, viewed from our present point of view, is unintelligible. Nonsense is nonsense only when we have not yet found a point of view from which it makes sense."
So encourage your participants to share their wildest and craziest ideas. Such ideas often serve as launch pads for sane yet sensational solutions.
Managers sometimes start brainstorming sessions by saying, "Okay, before we open things up, let me tell you a few ideas I think might work."
And what happens? Well, participants who are easily intimidated will hitch their wagons to the boss’s ideas, probably at the expense of their own creativity. And more rebellious participants won’t come near the boss’s ideas, even though those ideas might indeed have merit.
A better approach is for the boss to set the stage by defining the problem or objective, then hold back until later in the process.
It’s unlikely these words are ever actually spoken, but they’re often implied. Participants settle into cushy chairs, remaining immobile for the entire session. Consequently, energy dissipates.
Let participants know it’s okay to walk around, sit on the floor, perform jumping jacks in a corner. Movement generates energy, and energy generates lively thinking.
When I’m facilitating brainstorming sessions and participants begin organizing slumber parties in their seats, I’ll call for a five-minute break. When participants return, chairs are gone, and everybody stands for the rest of the session. This on-your-feet overhaul never fails to recharge batteries and reinvigorate idea sharing.
We’ve all heard this idea slayer and its many variations, such as: "We don’t do it that way." "Our client won’t like that." "That costs too much." "That will take too long." "That’s stupid." On and on.
I call such statements "That Splats," because they grab ideas by their throats and hurl them against walls, where they instantly die with mighty splats.
There’s no room for opinions and decisions while generating ideas. Save judgment for subsequent editing and examining sessions, and keep minds open wide during brainstorming.
—Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader, and writer on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. His books include IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command. Find him at www.zingzone.com.