Think inside the box for more effective brainstorms

Think back to the last brainstorm meeting you attended. Perhaps you scheduled it to tap into the collective creativity of your team—with high hopes of coming away with a truly great idea. But what actually happened? We’re guessing everyone came in with a burst of ideas before moving off track, devolving into random word association, and amassing piles of sticky notes that went nowhere.

Here at Asana, we do a lot of brainstorming to come up with new topics to write about. But we’re also averse to inefficient meetings and try to avoid scheduling them unless they’re absolutely necessary. Browse any team’s calendar, though, and brainstorm sessions are sure to make a few appearances. The question is: why do bad brainstorms happen to good teams? And what can teams do to prevent the bad ones—and run more effective brainstorms?

An idea is born

Brainstorming is the brainchild of advertising executive Alex F. Osborn, who developed techniques for “organized ideation” in 1938. As co-founder and executive vice president of BBDO, a leading advertising agency, Osborn spent the next few years honing his methods to help his creative team “think up” more—and better—ideas for ad campaigns.

In Applied Imagination (1953), Osborn established four basic principles for running an effective brainstorm:

  1. More ideas are better.
  2. There are no bad ideas.
  3. The crazier ideas, the better.
  4. Combining ideas is a good thing.

For anyone who’s ever led or participated in a brainstorm meeting, Osborn’s principles will no doubt ring a bell. And more recently, modifications of the classic brainstorm—from IDEO’s “design-thinking” approach to the Note and Vote technique—have found their way into conference rooms as well.

In many cases, Osborn’s tried-and-true methods can work for teams that need to quickly generate lots of ideas. On the other hand, we’ve all attended our share of bad brainstorms. So what can teams do?

Creativity from constraints

For Osborn, the goal of a brainstorm is to maximize the quantity of ideas generated. The assumption is that more ideas increase the chances of a breakthrough. That’s why brainstorm meetings are usually open-ended: free from any judgment and limitations that prevent team members from sharing their thoughts and filling the whiteboard with ideas. But when brainstorms are a little too freewheeling, teams tend to prioritize quantity over quality, tossing out whatever comes to mind even if an idea doesn’t really have legs.

It turns out that instead of total freedom, teams actually need constraints to be more creative. That’s what Patricia Stokes, a former advertising creative who left Madison Avenue to become a research psychologist, argues in her book Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough. She writes, “The more constrained the solution paths, the more variable, the more creative, the problem solvers.”

Whether it’s a list of business requirements, a tight budget, or a looming deadline, limitations and constraints give teams a set of problems to solve for. It’s why architect Frank Gehry prefers working with constraints over open-ended projects. While designing the Disney Hall, Gehry faced a strict set of acoustics requirements. His solution was a unique interior design that shaped the eye-catching, wavy steel exterior. Today, the completed building stands in downtown Los Angeles as a celebrated feat of architecture.

A better brainstorm

In cases where external constraints don’t already exist, you can help your team come up with more creative and interesting ideas by introducing some structure and limitations to your next brainstorm. Who knows, you just might come up with a breakthrough (or two) together.

Here are a few strategies for leading a better and more effective brainstorm.

Do some homework first

Before you round up all your teammates for a marathon brainstorm session, take a step back to do some prep work. Spending some time up front to think through the purpose and goals of your brainstorm can go a long way in setting up your brainstorm for success.

First, define the problem you’re trying to solve. Maybe your team needs to come up with a name for a new product, or you’re looking for creative ways to speed up internal processes. Once everyone is on the same page about your mission, it becomes easier to focus and stay on creative track as a team.

Also think about the desired outcome of your brainstorm meeting. If you only have an hour or two to work with, chances are, you won’t come away with the perfect solution, especially in cases where you need to come up with a single Big Idea. Instead, shoot for a realistic goal, like a list of 10 really solid ideas that you want to explore in a follow-up meeting.

Spending some time up front to think through the purpose and goals of your brainstorm can go a long way in setting up your brainstorm for success.

Clarify roles

Even when you schedule a brainstorm fully prepared and with the best intentions, you’re bound to hit a few snags in the meeting where your team starts to lose its productive steam. A brainstorm meeting should always be fun, but it’s not an hour to totally goof off. That’s where the facilitator comes in.

When you kick off any brainstorm meeting, let the team know who will be leading the session. The facilitator acts as the conductor of the brainstorm: she shares the purpose and goals, establishes any ground rules, and sets the tempo of the meeting.

Most importantly, the facilitator listens closely to the team and actively steers the session, especially when it feels like things are starting to move off course. And once you’ve identified your facilitator, the rest of your team can focus on their role in the brainstorm: to come up with brilliant ideas.

Build in structure

Another way to introduce limitations to your brainstorm is to build a mental structure to guide and frame your team’s thinking. Consider coming up with a few categories or themes that can act as creative prompts for your team.

Say you’re brainstorming names for a new product, for instance. Your categories might be: descriptive, playful, branded, or neologistic. It’s a lot easier to overcome mental blocks and get the ideas flowing when your team has something to work with. There’s nothing more creatively daunting than staring at a big, empty whiteboard—or a stack of blank sticky notes.

If your team is still feeling overwhelmed or stuck, you can try using the SCAMPER method as another layer of structured thinking. Developed by Bob Eberle, SCAMPER is an acronym for: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, or Reverse. Each part of the acronym stands for a specific technique and set of questions that can be applied to existing ideas. So if you have a few really great ideas that have worked in the past, see if your team can come up with new ideas by modifying or combining them in some way.

Think in increments

For a few lucky people, the muse shows up unannounced to trigger a burst of creativity as brilliant ideas spring forth with minimal effort. With so many popular myths of spontaneous creativity—from a falling apple inspiring Newton to formulate the law of gravity to Mozart writing entire operas in one sitting—it’s easy to think that waiting for ideas to come is the best way to approach the creative process.

Entering a brainstorm meeting with a “waiting” mindset, though, is a recipe for procrastination. When you know you have a whole hour or two to generate ideas, it’s tempting to sit and wait until a fully-formed idea magically appears out of nowhere. Before you know it, the hour is up and you’re left with few ideas.

Instead, make timeboxing your friend. Break up your brainstorm meeting into five- or ten-minute increments, and dedicate each chunk of time to a specific creative task. The brainstorm facilitator acts as timekeeper and lets people know when to stop and move on to the next creative task.

For example, in a recent team brainstorm for copy ideas, our marketing team spent the first ten minutes coming up with themes and the next ten coming up with specific copy ideas for those themes. When you add time constraints to your brainstorm, your team is more likely to get right to work and stay focused—rather than wait to feel inspired.

Toward your next breakthrough

As you start planning your next team brainstorm meeting, remember that the brainstorm itself is an active process. Like any other workflow, it’s important to break down individual steps and proactively manage them for the best results.

And remember that it’s okay if a brainstorm session doesn’t yield any winning ideas. You’re probably not going to come up with a new business strategy in the course of two hours. (You’ll likely need several ideation sessions to tackle larger creative problems.) But what a structured brainstorm can do is help your team head in the right direction and start homing in on the most promising ideas. So go forth, and brainstorm away.

What are your team’s most effective brainstorming techniques? Share them in the comments!

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