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    Why do people hate brainstorm sessions?

    To date, 72% of those who have responded to our survey (see our first blog post dated March 19th) have responded that a typical brainstorming session in their organization is either “pretty much a waste of time,” or worse, “torture.”

    We’re keeping the poll up indefinitely, so if you haven’t voted yet, please do.

    In the meantime, why is it that so many people hate, dread or at the very least, feel ambivalent about brainstorms? What is it about the question, “Anybody got any ideas?” that makes the majority of brainstorm participants cringe?

    In our own research, we find this to be a consistent response across industries. Virtually everyone seems to know that their approach to group idea generation is broken; but they haven’t a clue how to fix it.

    One of the key issues is a lack of established process. Almost by definition, people believe that brainstorm sessions should be “loose.” Too much structure is certain to squash people’s natural creativity, right?

    Wrong. All innovative thinking (creativity, lateral thinking, eureka moments, etc.) takes place within some sort of process.

    The creative genius may appear undisciplined and totally random. But ask any one, and he or she will explain some sort of process — how they seed their thoughts with inspiration, how they set the stage for free association, how they separate the wheat from the chaff, how they develop and expand upon their fledgling ideas. And that’s just a single person, a solitary mind struggling against itself. Put ten such individuals into a room, and the need for a process is even greater. It is naive to think that a group of individuals can effortlessly flow through the process of idea generation and development without some sort of process or structure to guide them.

    Big egos, crippling insecurities, peer pressure, intimidation by senior staffers, shyness, arrogance, fatigue, lack of understanding, too much caffeine, Blackberries and iPhones, last night’s outstanding episode of Mad Men — a thousand different things can turn the best-intentioned brainstorm into a waste of time for participants and a waste of resources for an organization. At their worst, poorly structured and facilitated brainstorm sessions are completely demoralizing and produce no worthwhile concepts.

    So what’s the answer? How can you transform your organization’s ability to generate fresh, innovative ideas, efficiently and consistently, and maybe even enjoy the process?

    First, plan your brainstorming sessions ahead of time, establish a process, create ground rules for participants, and stick with them.

    Second, make sure that anyone running sessions knows and understands the process, and applies it consistently. The best process is worthless if it isn’t applied.

    Finally, educate yourself on the processes, techniques and approaches developed by others. A lot of experienced people have spent a lot of time considering this topic, and developing, testing and implementing systems that work. SmartStorming, of course, is one. (Our favorite!)

    Innovation and the ability to think and act creatively is crucial to any organization, and particularly in today’s unsettled environment. Brainstorms should not be treated as casual, unimportant events. They represent an opportunity for your group to move the organization forward.

    Now, have you got any ideas?

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    2 Responses to “Why do people hate brainstorm sessions?”

    1. ed bernacki says:

      It seems to me that asking people if they like brainstorming is much like asking my sister if she likes broccoli. She hates broccoli even though she has never tried it (she does not like green vegetables).
      Well, how many people have actually read Allied Imagination (1953) to understand what Alex Osborn actually said about brainstorming? His book includes 287 pages of strategies and tips to apply your imagination in more structured ways to solve problems more effectively. He then offered 12 pages of tips to help people harness their brains to storm through a problem. Implicit in his book is that people are trained in the tools and techniques of applied imagination.

      I too ask audiences about brainstorming and then give them the full story. It throws the onus back on the participants in these brainstorm session – do they know how to be effective “brain stormers”? My observation is often no. People need the skills that Osborn talked about in the 1950s.
      Otherwise most sessions will continue to end in bland results.

    2. admin says:

      Great response, Ed. Thanks. And good to hear from you! You’re right. The response of most people that they hate brainstorming is exactly like “do you like broccoli.” Most have never tasted GOOD broccoli – or in some cases none at all. Nonetheless, this is the vegetable that is being served up in the vast majority of conference rooms and offices around the world. Your reference to Osborn is excellent. However, by the time he wrote “APPlied Imagination” in 1953 the damage had been done. The “methodology” (or lack thereof) of brainstorming had already been established. Even in his EARLIER book (which I recently gave to my business partner as a birthday gift) “Your Creative Power” (1948), it’s clear the “father of brainstorming” already knew that much more was needed to ensure effective brainstorming that just “a bunch of guys in a room (sorry ladies, but it was the 40s) throwing ideas around. But his “core concept” was so fresh and revolutionary, no one waited for v2.0. By the time Osborn thought through his “Frankenstein,” the monster had been unleashed. So yes, we ask people how they like the Frankenstein Monster – and offer a much more carefully thought-out alternative.

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