Brainstorming: From Dark Clouds to Sunshine

A few months ago I led a brainstorming session for an organisation wanting to break into a new market and differentiate on service and price.

The session was successful in that some great ideas were put forward by the group and some of the ideas are now being closely investigated.  I was generally pleased with the role I played and I received good feedback but there was enough uncertainty in my mind about the effectivness of the experience that it made me reflect on how it could have been better, and not just for me, but for the individuals in the group and the organisation as a whole.

I’m bearing my soul here a little, but hey, we are all learning, right!

The participants

I was present while the Manager of the area decided who should be part of the group and I found I had to negotiate around his preference for people who “would speak up” and who “had an idea to push”.  I argued that here was an opportunity for people who didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in the normal office environment to share ideas in a forum where it was “okay” to speak up.  The situation was resolved with the Manager agreeing to add two or three additional people to the group to “add to the flavour”.

I think it depends on the organisation and personalities you are dealing with but perhaps it’s best in some cases to seek volunteers to join the group.  On the other hand those who are not at ease to share their thoughts may have shy-ed away with good ideas lost.

Overall, I think you need to have some people who are able to put forward ideas as concepts and those who can put forward ideas from a practical perspective.  Representatives from the “shop floor” for example can contribute strongly and their inclusion sends a powerful message that they are trusted and valued as people and also in terms of their specific expertise and experience.

Scene setting

Setting the scene for a brainstorm is vital.  Explanation of the usual “rules” that everyone has an opportunity to speak, no idea is a bad idea, no debate about the worth of the idea, no denegrading remarks allowed and that common sense, respect and politeness are paramount is important.

But, if the Manager speaks first to “set the scene” be aware you run the risk of the agenda being established at the outset and this can be very unfortunate.  A Manager’s expectation that great ideas must come forward, provided thay are not stupid, is a classic.  This type of jaw-dropping statement as the commencement of a brainstorming session results in the activity being immediately constrained.

It’s probably best if something the Boss must deal with elsewhere is found on the day of the brainstorm.

Speaking up

In my recent case I avoided the urge to “do the rounds” of the table to get the ideas flowing.  I asked for somene to start and then remained silent and wandered around the room until someone “broke the ice”.  It took two or three uncomfortable minutes but that was the vital point and from there ideas came flowing, somewhat sheepishly at first and then with increasing confidence.

Brainstorming is not debating.

On the beach

It seems to be fairly common for brainstorming sessions to be conducted away from the office.  I question the medium and long term effectiveness of that because I really think we should advocate sharing ideas and building teamwork and creativity within context of normal everyday work.  Why would we think that people will be more likely to share ideas away from the office?  Is it because we perceive they will be more relaxed? Is it because we think that the “reward” of a free night or two at a resort will open minds?

I’m not saying that off-site brainstorming activities are ineffective, and sometimes there is no alternative due to office space restrictions.  But if we want our day-to-day workplace to be steeped in trust and pride where opinions are welcome and actually considered, why not take every opportunity to use the workplace as the area to encourage this behaviour?

Idea quality

“No crazy ideas” the Boss said at the infamous opening address!  Well, crazy to him or her may turn out to be far from crazy.  In fact there are plently of examples where seemingly silly ideas have resulted in a complete change of mindset within huge markets.  Take elasticised sides and velcro to secure babies nappies (diapers for our USA friends) reinforced by a slogan that “What-ever happens in the nappy stays in the nappy!”

Whoever would have thought that a “mouse” could replace the directional keys on a computer keyboard, or for that matter, that you press the “start” button to close down your computer.

Keeping track

Here is an area I need to learn from experience and do better at when conducting brainstorming sessions.  In the heat of the sometimes frenzied brainstorm it’s not easy to keep an accurate record of ideas because some ideas can’t be summarised into a word or two or even within a short phrase, let alone remember who the contributor was so that the idea can be expanded upon at a later time.

In future I’ll use some sort of code, probably just a number, and I’ll jot it down on the whiteboard next to the idea and ask the contibutor to jot the idea down as well with the same number.  That way the source of the idea can be traced.  This technique is probably not new, it just never dawned on me to do it!

I love to put forward ideas, but I have to consciously fight not to when conducting a session, particularly when there is a “lull in proceedings”.  Apart from probably using a different part of my brain to think creatively, opposed to keeping a record and watching the flow of the ideas, I find the most effective way to “kick-start” the group and re-focus is to use silence.  It gives me some time to re-focus as well!  Someone always speaks up.


Everyone likes to know the outcome, which were the best ideas, who contributed them and what is going to happen about them.

The overall activity demands there is much more time spent consolidating, reviewing and assessing ideas than there is gathering them.  Unfortunately, this is not always recognised and on too many occasions ideas are lost and participants are left feeling disenchanted because of a lack of follow-up communication and basic acknowledgement of their effort.

Brainstorming needs to be done for genuine purposes and the participants need to know.  If it’s carried out to “make them think they are important” or “keep them happy”, or “in case something comes to light” the process will fail, not necessarily before or even during the session, but in the aftermath – when they perceive it all was just a farce.


We all have a lot to learn about getting the best from people, but I think there is one thing we can’t get wrong at the outset; that everyone knows what a successful brainstorming activity means in real terms.  “How will we know when this activity has been successful?”

I’ll be interested in your ideas about how we can improve brainstroming and what your description and measure of success might be, beyond the obvious identification of that “gem of an idea” which changes your world.


  1. Thanks for sharing Bob and having been involved in facilitating numerous Workout and brainstorming sessions, I can relate to a lot of what you have written about. I have to say I’m impressed with the use of silence and I think this is an area I (still) need to work on as I do tend to ‘help’ people along at times. It can be slightly uncomfortable at times when people aren’t forthcoming with ideas or thoughts but you’re right someone will say something eventually and then the flood gates with open.

    Very strange way of opening the session by the manager, note to any other managers do not open a brainstorming session with the words ‘no stupid ideas please’. That did make me smile as I’ve experienced something similar myself. I’ve seen ‘stupid’ ideas turned in to innovative concepts and then turned in to new products – you should not limit or constrain creativity in anyway, a good facilitator should be able to harness and focus this creativity if necessary.

    Your last point around follow up is massively important. I’ve been involved in sessions where employees have been engaged and asked for their ideas and feedback when the decisions have already been made and the session is ‘going through the motions’ and ticking the box so to speak. This does nothing to engage or motivate people. For me ensuring that groups are kept informed with actions / outcomes and if possible involve them in the follow up themselves is a great way to keep that engagement going.

  2. Thanks for comment Mike and yes, the follow-up piece is vital and the opportunities from brainstorming extend well beyond idea generation.

    It’s the “sunshine” aspect of my post that provides sustained benefits from brainstorming. One of the established drivers of engagement is that people like (want) their ideas to be “heard”. The added bonus comes if they are not only heard but acted on and given respectful consideration – whether implemented or not.

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