5 reasons brainstorms are a waste of your time and money.

I have an idea. Let’s not do brainstorms anymore. Most organizations believe brainstorm sessions are a great way to generate a lot of ideas quickly. While you may feel like you see a lot of new thinking in these sessions, you don’t see what you don’t see. As a professional creative thinker, I consider the brainstorm session a highly visible, but highly inefficient way to develop new ideas. I thought about hosting a telethon to raise awareness of this problem. But I didn’t know where to find ten landline telephones. So this post will have to do.

Dissecting the Brainstorm Problem

One of the reasons brainstorms are so popular is that in a one hour session you can generate a visible collection of new ideas. But the pile of ideas you leave the meeting with is misleading. Because brainstorm sessions are like gathering 100 horses and only generating 50 horsepower. You would be better off letting those ponies run alone.

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 5 Problems With Brainstorms

1. Brainstorming is made for extroverts.

Brainstorming is a game where you rapidly blurt out half-baked ideas in front of a small crowd. For extroverts this is good sport. But to the other 50% of the planet this is an uncomfortable and unnatural activity. The quieter half of the population thinks more than they speak. They generate a lot of ideas on their own. Which means that the brainstorm is simply not their natural habitat for idea generation.

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2. The 80/20 Rule

In line with the core tenants of the 80/20 rule, 80% of the good ideas in a typical brainstorm come from 20% of the people. Brainstorms give the false impression that everyone is birthing ideas. But this is not the reality. If you conducted a brainstorm in a petri dish, and observed it under a microscope, you would see a small population of valuable idea generators, a larger collection of evaluators, and a smattering of cheerleaders and spectators. Of course, they would all be wondering why you were staring at them through a giant microscope.

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3. The Brainstorm Bottleneck.  

In a polite and orderly brainstorm session you have one person speak at a time. This is also a necessity when you have one scribe capturing the ideas and mounting them on a giant flip pad. The flip side of that orderliness is that when one person is talking, no one else is contributing ideas. There is simply not enough air time for all the ideas that should be generated by just three productive thinkers over the course of an hour.

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4. Invisible Clay Pigeons:

There are not supposed to be any bad ideas in a brainstorm. Participants are not supposed to evaluate or criticize ideas. But there are a whole flock of less-obvious ideas that never get tossed to the group because the thrower is afraid their idea will get shot down in the minds of the other participants. Even if the group adheres to the rules of brainstorming during the session, participants will still feel judged by the group, in silence.

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5. Great Brains Storm On Their Own

Great ideators generate ideas at a faster pace, with greater range and push more boundaries when working alone. A good thinker will quickly gather the low hanging fruit. Then they get to work on the rest of the tree. Then other trees. Then other orchards.  Then they harvest fruit on other continents. And finally, on other planets. You are far less likely to get a bushel basket full of Uranus Apples in a traditional brainstorm.

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The Solution

To generate the most, best and broadest range of ideas, people should always think alone first. Give your team members a quiet place, a pen and a pad of paper. The ideas will flow and fill the pages. Only after the team has thought on their own should you bring them together to share their sparkly new brain gems. During The Thinkers Reunion, you experience the Reece’s moment, when people can get their chocolate in someone else’s peanut butter. The mash-ups, surprise combinations, epiphanies and amplified ideas at this stage are far more valuable.

Key Takeaway

Stop wasting time and money on brainstorm sessions. They are not the Holy Grail of idea generation they are thought to be. Work in isolation. Then pour all the ideas together. You’ll get more and better ideas every time. If you have other idea-generating ideas  you’ve thought of on your own, please share them in the comments section.

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Focus more on the things you love.

My business plays in a fun sandbox. Brands across the United States and Canada come to my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, looking for smart new ideas. Our team of strategic and creative thinkers explore ideas that extend far beyond what most clients could create on their own. Clients love us because we reveal new possibilities. And because we do ridiculous things that make them laugh a lot in meetings.

Exploring the Possibilities

Clients often hire us to help them reimagine their brand. On a recent project our team presented our client with 40 new logo options to choose from. Yes, 40. We pride ourselves on offering a great range of thinking so that everyone can find something they like. You know, like a buffet. Or a boy band.

Once we concluded the share of new logos and opened the floor for discussion (ok, so the floor didn’t really open), I was surprised by the very first comments that followed. One of the clients said, “I REALLY don’t like option 9.” Then he spent several minutes elaborating on why he didn’t like option 9. After several others shared their favorites, this client spoke up again and said, ‘Did anyone else dislike option 9 as much as I did?’

The Weaponry Way

Let me let you in on one of The Weaponry’s secrets. The reason we show multiple ideas is because our clients might not like them all. I’m fine with that. My friends at Coca Cola sell a wide range of drink options so that we can all find something we like. I love Coke and Gold Peak Tea. I don’t focus on the fact that Diet Coke tastes like liquid bike tires.

It is a waste of time to focus on the things that we don’t like. Or the things that don’t work. I think of the creative process like finding your way through a maze. Once you find yourself at a dead end, immediately turn around and start exploring another option. To stop and focus on that dead end, or worse, go back to the dead end to see it again, and think about how dead that end really is, is a waste of time.

Maximizing

A few years ago I did a Strength Finders analysis. The test concluded that I am a Maximizer. Which means I don’t spend any time focusing on what happened in the past, or what can’t be changed. I focus on the possibilities in front of me and how to make something good into something great. Which is a good construct to have when you are a professional creative. Or an entrepreneur. I help my team and my clients find ideas with a lot of potential, then bring out the maximum potential in each of them.

The Take Away

Focus on the things you love most. Spend your time looking for the solutions, the answers, the wows. The beautiful building, the kind act, the smart idea, the great looking jacket, the blog post about focusing on the things you love (that you loved enough to like and share). When you see something that doesn’t work for you, move on. Focus on the great, the exciting possibilities, the things that make you happiest. You will find more good in the world. Let’s all let go of our own option #9. The other 31 options are better anyway.

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An easy way to have a game-changing creative idea tonight.

There is nothing more valuable than a great idea. Powerful ideas can make you rich. They can make you famous. They can separate you from your competitors. Heck, they can convince people to buy a pet rock. But our lives are so freakin busy that it can feel impossible to dedicate enough time to the kind of focused thinking that will land you on TechCrunch, the cover of Forbes, or the prime slot on The Home Shopping Network.

When thinking time becomes scarce there is a technique I use for nighttime ideation. The solution is so simple it is almost laughable. I can confidently say that you’re going to enjoy it more than diet and exercise combined. My ancient-Chinese-secret ideation technique is…

Go to bed 30 minutes early.

Most of us push bed time to the very last-minute. Or beyond. We either have tasks we want to accomplish before we throw in the towel on the night. Or we work so hard the rest of the day that we finally want a little time to binge watch all the shows everyone else is talking about. Suddenly, the latest surprise on The Story of Us, Stranger Things or The Real Housewives of Sandusky robs us of our sleep. Thanks a lot Andy Cohen.

But when I really need more thinking time, I go to bed early. It’s counterintuitive, I know.  But an amazing thing happens when you get your personal go-to-bed timing right. You will find that you are not so tired that you fall asleep immediately. You’ll also find that it isn’t so late that you stress about falling asleep before the alarm pounces on your head early the next morning. Instead, you are able to relax and enjoy the peace, calm and comfort of your bed. And in that state, once you get good and quiet, the ideas come out to play.

To guide your creative thinking in that relaxed, pre-sleep state, gently grab the topic you want to think on, and softly place it at the center of your mind. Then follow the inklings. They are the faint pathways that connect your central topic to new ideas, plans and partnerships.

Remarkable solutions and innovations are birthed in that quiet time if we listen.  To avoid distraction it is important to leave your phone or other digital distractions in another room. An ill-timed push notification from Groupon about a sweet deal on Naked Skydiving And Go-Karting For Four! can interrupt your flow and kill an idea in the embryonic state. Instead, keep a notebook and pen on your nightstand to capture your ideas before they escape into the darkness.

Of course it would be great if I could share an example of a real world, bed-born idea that made a major financial impact. So here it comes.

Ski-Doo snowmobiles was one of my favorite clients of all time. A problem that plagued the snowmobile industry for many years was the reverse mechanism that enables a snowmobile to go backwards. The additional feature added cost and weight to the sled. But one night, while lying in bed, one of the Ski-Doo engineers had the thought that if you simply reversed the wiring on the engine, the engine would run in reverse, as would the rest of the machine. When he rushed in to work the next day to see if that actually worked, he was delighted to find it worked exactly as he had envisioned, and thus Rotax Electronic Reverse (RER) was born. Suddenly Ski-Doo could offer a reverse feature on all of their snowmobiles without adding any additional weight or expense to the machine. This was a clear differentiator and competitive advantage that came from the bedroom. Not the boardroom.

The challenges of life and work can seem relentless. They come at us like chocolates to Lucille Ball. But game-changing ideas are out there waiting for you. To catch them tonight, you may just have to lay down, be quiet, and let them come to you.

(featured image by Andri Iskander:)