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Collaborative work

10 reasons your last brainstorming session failed (and how to fix it)

By Tricia Whenham
on Sep 8, 2016 12:00:00 PM

Brainstorming sessions are so commonplace they’ve almost become a business cliché. So why is it we often leave them counting all the better ways we could have spent that hour? And there’s plenty of science to back up that feeling. When Leigh Thompson compared traditional brainstorming with its alternatives, for example, she found that 42 percent more original ideas were generated when individuals worked alone.

And yet, we also know that big problems are rarely solved in isolation. Our great driver of innovation has always been, in the words of Steven Johnson, “our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and turn them into something new.”

There’s too much at stake to waste our time in bad brainstorming sessions – especially when the alternatives can be so groundbreaking. Looking to get your collaborative work back on track? Here are 10 reasons brainstorming might be falling flat – and some solutions.Brainstorming session preparation

1. No preparation

If the first time your team has considered the topic is when they walk in the room, that’s a problem. Without building in time for critical thinking beforehand, it’s easy to waste the first third of a session just getting warmed up. Similarly, if organizers haven’t taken the time to determine goals and objectives, even a brainstorm that feels productive could lead teams in the wrong direction.

SOLUTION: Make sure tasks and objectives are clearly communicated well in advance. Then make it an expectation to come to the face-to-face meeting with some initial ideas.

2. Just the usual suspects

Next time you’re in a collaborative ideation session, scan the room. If everyone looks like you, or works in the same functional area, or gets information from the same sources, you may be in trouble. Because same old perspectives will just lead to the same old results.

SOLUTION: If you’re trying to think differently, make sure at least one new person is present. Don’t be limited by geography – search out products (like our Nureva™ Span™ software and HDL300 audio conferencing system) that will make your remote contributors feel like they’re in the room with you.

3. Ill-designed spaces

Many meeting spaces are designed for information consumption, not creation. It’s a holdover from another era, and if we’ve been in these spaces long enough, we may not even notice. But if you’re gathering your team in a sterile boardroom, you may be stifling the creativity you want to cultivate – or worse, sending subtle signals about what kind of behavior you’re looking for.

SOLUTION: Design your meeting rooms – and ad hoc working spaces – with creativity and collaboration in mind. If you’re looking for ideas, here’s how we did it.

Brainstorming spaces

4. Groupthink

At my son’s kindergarten grad, they asked the kids a pretty standard question – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers were varied, until one kid said “police officer.” Then so did the next. And another. And about 10 more after that. That’s groupthink in action, and adults do it, too. It can completely derail a brainstorming session because instead of exploring diverging perspectives, everyone converges on one of the first ideas shared.

SOLUTION: Don’t let one person’s ideas monopolize. Engage in brainwriting, which involves allotting time to generate ideas individually before taking in what everyone else thinks.

5. Uneven participation

At least one-third of the population are introverts, so you’re guaranteed to work with at least a few of them. Is your collaborative work designed to, as Susan Cain says, “tune into their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there”? If not, you’re missing out.

SOLUTION: Make sure to not just share ideas verbally. Let people contribute with sticky notes – actual ones or digital ones. Plus give them other ways (e.g., sketches or images) to capture their thinking.

6. Entrenched hierarchies

Or maybe the problem is not who talks but who gets heard. In too many brainstorming sessions, an idea shared by a VP means more than the same idea shared by a junior team member. The less experienced may respond by second guessing the value of their ideas and staying mute.

SOLUTION: Shine a spotlight on the idea, not the person. Start brainstorming sessions with anonymous contributions, so ideas can be discussed on their own merits.

7. Facilitator oversteering

Facilitators can play a key role in keeping brainstorming sessions on track. But if you place too much power in their hands, they may be skewing the results more than you (or they) think. Next time you’re in a session, pay attention to which ideas get written down fully and which don’t. Which ideas get expanded on, and which are neglected.

SOLUTION: Let everyone use the same working canvas (physical or virtual) to contribute and organize ideas. Don’t make one person the arbiter of what really counts.Brainstorming session results

8. Session interrupted

We’ve all been there. Everyone’s warmed up, the ideas are starting to flow – and then there’s a knock on the door signaling time is up. So everyone scrambles to put an artificial end to the discussion while snapping photos of the scrawls on the board or rushing around picking up oversized pieces of paper. By the time the group gets together again, the momentum is lost.

SOLUTION: Choose a cloud-based solution that lets everyone continue to generate ideas after the group work is done. With this type of solution, it’s also easier to pick things up in another space if you get booted from your meeting room early.

9. Unreadable outputs

Let’s say you’ve just finished a charmed brainstorming sessions – ideas flowed, everyone participated and real progress was made. You’re eager to share how much you accomplished, but how can scrawled sticky notes and charts ever hope to capture what was achieved – especially for outside stakeholders who weren’t in the room? It’s often left to someone to type up all the notes – hardly a good use of anyone’s time.

SOLUTION: Stay ahead of the game by trading paper for a digital tool that enables ideas to be easily captured in a format that’s intelligible for others.

10. No follow-up

There are a lot of myths surrounding creativity and the Eureka moment. And yet there’s increasing research that when you want to truly innovate, much of the creative work happens in the details. If all the focus is on the initial ideation session, the execution of good ideas can become disconnected from the creative inspiration that got them started.

SOLUTION: Bridge the gap between idea generation and action by delving into the details. Consider if breakout groups from the initial brainstorming session could keep using their collaborative muscle to flesh out different aspects of the idea and make it a reality.

What ideas have you tried to make brainstorming work for you?

Discover how the latest technology is making collaboration easier, faster and more creative in this new white paper from Wainhouse Research.

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Topics: collaboration brainwriting brainstorming


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