10 common brainstorming mistakes (part two) – what’s your main brainstorming mistake?

In a previous article, I described 5 common brainstorming mistakes. Unfortunately, there are at least 5 more pitfalls to evade. Steer clear of these 5 mistakes to make sure you get the most out of your brainstorm sessions:

Brainstorming mistake #1: Not using creative thinking techniques

Many brainstorm sessions are little more than meetings where increasingly frustrated people shout ideas at each other. At the end of the session, participants are surprised to find that most of the ideas are rather obvious.

If you leave it up to chance, you’re likely to end with logical, yet boring ideas. To ensure creativity, you’ll have to force participants to look at the challenge differently.

While this is unnatural for many, it isn’t all that hard if you know the right tricks. These tricks to force people to come up with more original approaches are called ‘creative thinking techniques’.

There are many thinking techniques to choose from. Which techniques fit your brainstorm session most, depends on the subject. Thinking about solutions to a problem requires different techniques than thinking about improvements to an already excellent process.

We distinguish three categories of challenges: problem-solving, optimising and opportunity seeking.

If you have a problem, you’ll often need creativity to generate adequate solutions. A great technique for problem-solving is ‘Make it worse’, a fun and surprisingly helpful way of finding solutions. The technique is rather simple:

  • Step 1: You make your challenge even worse.
  • Step 2: You list possible benefits of this new situation.
  • Step 3: You use any new insights to generate ideas to solve the initial problem.

For more information on this technique, read this article I wrote about it: https://hatrabbits.com/en/make-it-worse/

Sometimes you don’t necessarily have a problem, but you’re still looking for clever ideas to improve something. Whether it’s a situation, a product, a process or a service. For these situations a technique like ‘SCAMPER’ is perfect.

SCAMPER is an excellent technique to systematically explore ways to improve a situation, product or service.

SCAMPER is an acronym of 7 different verbs you can apply to your subject:
S = Substitute
C = Combine
A = Adapt
M = Modify (or Magnify)
P = Put to Other Uses
E = Eliminate
R = Rearrange (or Reverse)

If, for instance, you are looking for ways to improve the design of a toothbrush, ask yourself: What can I substitute? What can I combine? How can I adapt this product? Etc.

For more on SCAMPER, read this post: https://hatrabbits.com/en/scamper/

Opportunity seeking
Even (or perhaps especially) if you don’t yet have something to improve or solve, you sometimes need creative ideas. For instance, when you’re trying to generate spectacular ideas for a new product or service. The Creative Escape is a wonderful way to generate unusual ideas that might prove game-changing.

Assumptions are generally to be avoided when you’re trying to be creative, but the Creative Escape is a way of using assumptions for good. Like ‘Make it worse’, this technique has three very simple steps.

  • Step 1: Write down five things that are absolutely CRUCIAL for your subject.
  • Step 2: Look at your list and cross out what you consider to be the most essential element.
  • Step 3: Allow yourself a short period of time to think and generate as many ideas as possible for ways in which your product, service or situation works WITHOUT the ‘necessary’ component. What would you do if the crossed-out element wouldn’t be available? How would you make sure that your product or service would still be valuable?

You don’t even have to spend valuable time figuring out which techniques fit your challenge best. We’ve created a brainstorm application that generates the perfect brainstorm program with the most appropriate techniques for your situation; Brightstorming. It even leads you through each of the steps while keeping the time. Check out this unique brainstorm software at Brightstorming.com


Brainstorming mistake #2: Not generating enough ideas.

It is tempting to stop the brainstorm session once you’ve ‘found’ a very good idea to reach your goal. However, there is always a better idea. The first ideas you generate might be good, but they’re probably also rather obvious. The first ideas you come up with are usually ‘logical’ ideas. And these logical ideas are hardly ever very creative.

Quantity leads to quality. The more ideas you generate, the bigger your chances of stumbling upon something (even more) brilliant. As time progresses and more ideas are shared, you’ll notice they’ll get crazier and crazier. This is a good thing. Truly brilliant ideas will look crazy at first.

Every really new idea looks crazy at first.

A simple trick that might help your team keep going is an idea quota. Decide in advance how many ideas you want. Challenging yourself and your team to come up with a minimum amount of ideas is the best way to break out of your own thinking patterns. It will force you to detach yourself from your favourite idea and keep looking.

Brainstorming mistake #3: Not making a choice

After having brainstormed for a while, you should have lots and lots of ideas. Especially if you’ve used thinking techniques. This abundance of ideas can be paralysing. You can’t possibly implement everything. You have to make a choice. But how do you select the best ideas out of a humongous pile of post-it notes?

Selecting the best ideas begins before the brainstorm even starts. This might sound odd; how can you select ideas if you haven’t yet generated any?

The trick is preparation. To help yourself select the best ideas after the brainstorm, you have to take action before you start the brainstorm session. Make a list of criteria in advance. These can be any type of requirements that are important factors for your challenge (for instance; safety, time, costs, usability, scalability, originality etc).

Start by creating a long list, and then narrow it down to the most important criteria. Depending on the size of your challenge you can work with a minimum of 2 criteria and a maximum of 6. While generating ideas, don’t mention the criteria. You don’t yet want to burden participants with any constraints. However, once you’ve generated a sufficient amount of ideas, you get out the criteria list.

Use the list to rate interesting ideas. You’ll quickly see which ideas fit the objective best.

For more on using criteria to rate ideas, read the article ‘How to evaluate brainstorm ideas like a professional’.

Using criteria isn’t the only way to quickly evaluate ideas. You can also use evaluation tools like the Evaluation Matrix or the 3 Bucket Model to quickly prioritise ideas. Which ideas rank best in terms of expected impact and required effort (time and energy)? And which ideas turn out to be no more than a juicy distraction?

Brainstorming mistake #4: Not testing your assumptions

Implementation is great. But rushing it is a mistake. Many great ideas have met an untimely death because they simply weren’t ready yet.

No matter how brilliant an idea might seem, any idea is based on assumptions. These might be justified, but often assumptions don’t entirely hold up in practice. Therefore, always test your assumptions as early as possible.

Ask yourself, what are the main assumptions I make in this idea? What would knock over my house of cards if it turns out to be different from what I assume? These are the assumptions you’ll want to test before you put your money where your mouth is.

Prototypes are great for testing ideas early on. Don’t wait till the idea is perfect. Test your assumptions as soon as possible. Make a rough version to see if the basic idea works in practice.

Building a prototype doesn’t require a shed filled with tools. The best prototypes are as simple as possible.

Create a single app screen, make only the landing page for a product that is not yet developed or role-play an essential interaction. Prototyping is a way of faking the real deal. You test how it would be if your idea became a reality.

Brainstorming mistake #5: No followup

Many brainstorms end with enthusiasm… and only that. Weeks later someone discovers a pile of dusty post-its somewhere in a discarded drawer. “Oh yeah, those were supposed to be typed out by the new intern!” someone comments while walking by.

Many ideas die in this drawer of doom. Nobody likes typing out post-it notes and even fewer people seem to fancy taking action towards implementation. This is a problem, as innovation is the implementation of a new idea. Creativity without implementation is not very useful at all. But how do you make sure people actually implement the brilliant ideas you generated?

One way is to make sure people are committed. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that happens automatically. People need to be put on the spot. Make the participants in your brainstorm session sign a ‘contract’ in which they describe the first action they’ll take to make the idea a success. Have them sign the contract so team members can keep each other responsible. Send all participants the signed contract(s) or hang it somewhere for everyone to see. It’s much harder to do nothing when you’re held accountable. Even if it’s only symbolic.

Another thing to keep in mind is that important stakeholders should be included in the entire process. If you ‘solve’ people’s problem and present them your marvellous idea without having included them, you can expect them to shoot down your brilliant idea. The best way to prevent this ‘not invented here’ syndrome is involving all stakeholders early on. The best idea is everyone’s idea.

Even if people are motivated to pursue an idea, things might go very wrong. A clever innovator anticipates this bad news. Figure out, before you start implementing, what might possibly go wrong. Use a pre-mortem or a potential-problem analysis to figure out what could mess up your plans.

The pre-mortem is the easiest of the two.

  • Step 1: Pretend it’s one year later. You’re looking back at the project and sadly you must conclude it has been a total failure. Ask yourself: what went wrong? As a group, list all the things that could’ve led to this disaster. What were the reasons the idea never became a success?
  • Step 2: Pick the most likely reasons for failure the team members just listed, and use them to improve the plan. Come up with ways to prevent the fiasco you just imagined.


What is your #1 brainstorming mistake? And how will you avoid this mistake in the future?

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