10 common brainstorming mistakes (part one)

Brainstorming seems easy enough. You gather a group of clever people, put them in a room with enough post-it notes and let them know the sky’s the limit. Ideas will flow freely and brilliant ideas are guaranteed. Right? Well, not if you make one of these common brainstorming mistakes:

1. Being ill prepared

Many brainstorming sessions are cobbled together on short notice and little attention is given to proper preparation. People who happen to be available get to join the session and most of them have hardly had a chance to study the challenge at hand. To make matters worse, key stakeholders are absent.

Many things are wrong with the situation described above. First of all, it’s very important that the right people attend the brainstorming session. To ensure a productive session and commitment for implementing the end result, you should make sure the following people are included:

  • People who actually know what’s going on (people from ‘the field’)
  • The problem-owner (who’s having the problem that requires creative ideas?)
  • People who will execute the winning idea (who will make sure the idea is implemented?)
  • Someone with the power to make decisions (who has the power to decide whether to pursue an idea?)
  • People who know little about the situation or organisation, and therefore are not hindered by their knowledge and expertise. These ‘fresh eyes’ get to ask the silly questions and are not hindered by the assumptions that are common among the stakeholders.

Figuring out which people should attend and inviting this dream team is only half the work. To secure an effective brainstorm session, the participants should also properly prepare themselves. Therefore is wise to give all participants a small ‘homework’ assignment prior to the brainstorming session. For instance, have them research how similar challenges are tackled in other types of organisations. Participants who have a better grasp of the challenge will generally generate better ideas. Furthermore, homework gets everybody on the same page. Since all participants have read about the subject and are familiar with the challenge, you won’t have to waste time explaining the basics and can get more in-depth during the session.

Don’t go overboard though. Make sure the assignment isn’t too big. If doing the homework is too time-consuming, you’ll find that people won’t do it and will come unprepared after all.

You’ll have to do some preparation yourself too. Obviously, you’ll need to make sure all the necessary materials are available (pens, paper, a screen or flipchart etc.), but you’ll also need to prepare for the moment after the brainstorm.

List criteria
Before you start brainstorming, generate a list of criteria to evaluate the ideas with afterwards. What requirements should the idea you’re looking for meet? Is there a maximum budget you shouldn’t exceed? Are there some (legal) boundaries you shouldn’t cross? Is there a deadline before which the idea should be executed (or have provided results)?

By making a list of criteria, you’ll make it much easier to efficiently evaluate the ideas afterwards. By checking each promising idea against the list, you’ll quickly eliminate ideas that don’t fit and get to objectively compare the ones that do.

Don’t make the mistake to introduce this list of criteria DURING the brainstorm session though. The brainstorm session should be creative and without limits. Crazy (unreasonable) ideas should be encouraged. Forget about the list until after the brainstorm. As, once you’ve generated loads and loads of ideas, you’ll need to make a choice. The criteria will help you pick the ideas that suit your challenge most.

2. Focussing on the wrong question

A common mistake during brainstorming sessions is working with a lousy focus question. Participants are asked to generate creative ideas for a dull challenge and matters are made worse by the poor way in which the boring question is phrased. Afterwards, people realise that the real issue hasn’t really been addressed.

People who organise a brainstorming session often don’t really grasp the problem that needs to be solved. It is easy and very common to accidentally focus on symptoms instead of the real problem. Symptoms are much more obvious than the real cause of your problems. To find causes, you’ll have to dig. And few people know how to do this.

There are several ways to analyse a problem, but one of the easiest is the 5 Why’s technique.

Five times ‘Why?’ gets the job done
When you use the 5 Whys technique you simply ask ‘Why?’ 5 times in a row. Each time you’ll peel away a layer of the problem and get closer to the root cause. In the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of the problem and what’s causing it.

Asking 5 childish questions in a row sounds easier than it actually is, as there are some things to consider.

For starters, you need to know what going on in your situation. If you don’t have a clue what happens ‘in the field’ you’ll quickly get stuck on one of the questions. If you don’t know all the details, include some people who do. Secondly, you should realise that there are many ‘Why’-questions that you can ask. Not all of them are relevant. Furthermore, almost any why-question can be answered with multiple different answers. Therefore, ask yourself every time “Does this answer bring me closer to the core of my problem?” Some answers will lead you away from the actual problem. If you find yourself stuck, go back a few steps and see if another answer (or question) is more useful to pursue.

For more on the 5 Whys technique, read ‘The 5 Whys – identifying the root cause of your problem

Rephrasing your question
Even if you know exactly what the real problem is, there are many ways you can phrase your challenge. Don’t settle for the first question you put on paper. It might seem fine, but there are many ways to ask a question. And how you phrase your question determines where you’ll look for answers. We’ve described the necessity of rephrasing your challenge in a previous article. Write down variations of the same question and ask yourself “Which of these questions inspires me?” “Which of these questions gives me ideas?”

People tend to be more innovative when they are faced with an original and inspiring briefing. Instead of a broad question like “How can we make more money?” ask “How can we turn our store into an exciting experience?” or “What can we add to our services that makes our customers want to visit us more often?

Finally, check if your question is easy to understand. A good question…

…addresses one issue
If you have more than one challenge to tackle, work on them separately. One by one.

…is specific
While broad goals leave lots of room for different approaches, too much choice can be paralysing. The people who try to find solutions simply won’t know where to start (or worse; start looking in obvious directions).

…is clear
Avoid jargon or complicated and abstract terms. Make sure everybody involved knows what you mean. The focus question is not meant for you to prove you have an imposing vocabulary.

…is positively phrased
Don’t use negative words like ‘no’, ‘not’ and ‘never’. Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.

…is actionable
Start your question with ‘How can we…’ or ‘How might we…’ Your challenge should lead to ideas that are in your control.

For more information on phrasing sharp questions, read the article ‘5 steps towards a clear focus

Charles Kettering quote

3. Forgetting to set ground rules

People often, mistakenly, assume that during a brainstorm all rules go out the window. This misguided belief results in chaotic and unproductive sessions with little more to show for than frustrated team members.

Creativity doesn’t flourish in an environment without rules. On the contrary. People are most creative when they are forced to accept certain limitations. For starters, people tend to be more creative when you give them a time limit. Time restraints can be very useful when generating ideas.

Of course, you shouldn’t overdo it. Rushing people too much can have the opposite effect. In our article ‘Does a time limit make you more creative?’ we explain the difference between productive and unproductive time restraints.

Should participants only be limited in time? Absolutely not. To prevent a waste of time and energy, you should set some ground rules and make it clear that these are not to be broken. Be firm and take action the minute someone breaks the rules.

In the past, we’ve even gone so far as to hand out water guns to correct rule breaking. For obvious reasons, this is not an approach I’d usually recommend.

Guarding the rules can be done in a number of different ways (depending on the group, the location and the facilitator). But the rules are almost invariable. The following rules apply in 99% of cases:

No Devices
At the very start of the session, ask participants to put their devices away (unless, of course, using devices is part of the brainstorming session). If you’re looking at your smartphone, it might give other participants the impression that you are not particularly interested in what they have to say. Tapping away on your device can also be an annoying distraction to those who are busy ideating.

No judging
Pointing out the flaws of an idea is certainly valuable. However, premature judging can seriously hurt a creative session. If creative ideas are what you’re after, criticism should temporarily be banned. At least until a large number of ideas is generated to choose from. After all, when it comes to creativity, quantity leads to quality.

Write everything down
This rule will seem obvious. But you’d be surprised how often people lose themselves in high-quality discussions without writing anything down. Brilliant ideas will be shared at a high tempo and once the dust settles people realise that nobody wrote anything down. Nothing is more frustrating than failing to remember that brilliant remark at the beginning of the conversation.

Go for quantity
Encourage people to generate many different ideas. Never stop at the first good idea. There is always a better alternative. The more ideas you come up with, the bigger your chances of finding a brilliant insight.

Build on ideas
An idea is not just good or bad. Ideas should be used as stepping stones. Listen carefully to what others share and use whatever remark inspires you. Encourage participants to write down any alternatives that come to mind.

The best way to have a good idea...

4. Diving right in

Groups often dive right into the creative chaos of a brainstorming session. Sharing ideas becomes shouting ideas. People struggle to be heard and the usual suspects lead the ‘conversation’. Meanwhile, the more silent participants become more and more quiet.

This is one of the biggest frustrations with brainstorming. Loud-mouthed extroverts dominate the meeting, while (possibly brilliant) ideas from more modest participants are never heard.

The problem described above is as much a problem of shy participants not getting a fair chance in a classical brainstorm, as it is a problem of not paying attention to the ideas people already have.

Always assume every participant enters the brainstorming session with at least a few ideas. And he or she is determined to share these ideas.

If you fail to address the already existent ideas and beliefs, you will soon face the consequences. People will find ways to arrive at their pre-destined idea, regardless of the creative techniques you use. This (sometimes unconscious) tendency toward a predetermined direction is not the only drawback you’ll encounter. People will also be less open to other participant’s ideas when they are clinging to their own ideas. (Who has time to listen to others when you’ve got your own brilliant thought to remember?)

To prevent this, it’s essential to start every brainstorming session with a so-called ‘Braindump’. A Braindump is a 10-minute exercise in which you’ll let every participant write down ideas in silence. All ideas people already have should be written down, as well as any other ideas that might occur to them.

In the Braindump you’ll collect all existing and ‘logical’ ideas. When the time’s up, share all ideas that have been collected. Assure participants that these ideas will be part of the idea harvest of today.

After sharing all the Braindump-ideas, it’s time to look for new and original ideas. “What else can we come up with?

5. Failing to create the right mindset

Especially when the subject of the brainstorm is a very serious issue, people might feel anxious. If the need for a solution is too high, people tend to have trouble sharing ‘crazy’ ideas. They might feel it’s inappropriate to be playful when there’s so much at stake.

Take away this reluctance, as it hurts your brainstorming session. If people are scared to share unorthodox ideas, you won’t get the best results out of the group. After all, it’s often the crazy ideas that lead to the most creative solutions.

Luckily, a simple warming up exercise can help break the ice that holds creative thoughts back. When you encounter a group that is unwilling to think ‘out of the box’, start with a neutral and silly statement. Let the group share their thoughts about a ridiculous scenario. ‘What if children would be invisible?’ ‘What if cows could fly?’ ‘What if everybody had a pet giraffe?

Obviously, these weird scenarios have absolutely nothing to do with your challenge. That’s the whole point. It might feel odd, but give the group some time. Set apart 5 minutes to discuss the crazy idea. What would it mean if this were the case? What would happen?

Before you know it, people will be laughing and sharing their thoughts gigglingly. The atmosphere becomes much less rigid and the group gets accustomed to sharing strange thoughts. After this exercise people are generally much less reluctant about sharing ‘odd’ ideas.

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

These are merely the first 5 common brainstorming mistakes. In my next post, I’ll describe mistake 6 to 10 (and how to avoid them).

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Showing 2 comments
  • Mirza Sohail Baig

    I think for creative solutions brainstorming is not effective, however I fully agree with your research.

    • René de Ruijter

      Hi Mirza, thank you for your comment (and apologies for not answering you sooner – I hadn’t noticed your comment before).

      When if comes to ‘old-fashioned’ brainstorming, you’re absolutely right. Suspending judgement in itself is not enough. However, when you improve your brainstorm sessions with creative thinking techniques, proper evaluation and rapid testing of assumptions (like I describe in part two of this article: https://hatrabbits.com/en/brainstorming-mistakes-part-two/ ), creative sessions can be highly effective.

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How to use the 5 Whys technique