Six Surefire Ways to Kill a Brainstorm

Coming up with good ideas — even in an ideal environment — is hard work. But these tactics will guarantee failure.

A poorly planned brainstorming session could cause more harm than good. And more frustration than anything else. That’s why Silicon Valley design firm Ideo follows strict rules for sparking good ideas.


These are not those rules.

The six strategies below are absolute no-no’s — surefire innovation killers from Tom Kelley, general manger of Ideo Product Development. Learn what not to do and then read Kelley’s Seven Secrets to Good Brainstorming.

1. Let the boss speak first.

Nothing kills a brainstorming session like a dominating CEO or the brownnosers who rush to agree with his every statement. Ideo recommends that bosses lock themselves out of idea-generation sessions all together. Send him out for doughnuts, and you’ll get better results.


2. Give everybody a turn.

Kelley remembers packing 16 people into a room for one particular meeting. Each person had two minutes to speak. It was democratic. It was painful. It was pointless. It was a performance, not a brainstorm. “In a real brainstorm, the focus should never be on just one person,” Kelley says.

3. Ask the experts only.

When it comes to generating truly innovative ideas, deep expertise in a field can actually be a drawback. “In a brainstorm, we’re looking for breadth,” Kelley says. Cross-pollination from seemingly unrelated fields can lead to authentic breakthroughs.

4. Go off-site.

By conducting off-site brainstorming sessions, you only reinforce the concept that great ideas only come on the beach or at high altitudes — not in the proximity of your daily work.


5. No silly stuff.

Kelley remembers one brainstorming session doomed by the boss’s opening remarks: All ideas had to result in something the firm could patent and manufacture. The silence that followed was deafening. Silly is important. Wild ideas are welcome. Brainstorming should be fun.

6. Write down everything.

Obsessive note taking is toxic to brainstorming. It shifts the focus to the wrong side of the brain. It makes the session feel like History 101. Doodles and sketches are fine. A short note that preserves a thought is acceptable. But detailed writing destroys momentum, dissipates energy, and distracts from the main purpose of the exercise: unfettered thinking. Each session should have an assigned scribe who records suggestions. And that person should not be the group facilitator.

Main story: Seven Secrets to Good Brainstorming


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.