3 Facts About Effective "Brainstorming"

It may not be as repulsive as “smear” or “moist,” but “brainstorming” has become a pretty ugly word in the ears of most. Visions of endless post-its dance in people’s heads and they say to themselves “I’d rather smear moist cheese on burnt toast than attend another one of those sessions."

We’ve all experienced terrible idea development sessions. Hours locked in a room with one useless notion being strung to the next. Then some poor sap summarizes all of it so the report can be ignored and everyone can about their business as usual. Because, not one of the ideas could work in a real business environment.

The bottom line is that “brainstorming" as we are used to thinking of it just doesn’t work. James Dyson doesn’t like it. Fast Company doesn’t like it. Seems like nobody likes it.

And yet here we are. Still in need of good ideas. But with no clue how to get them.

Fortunately not all is lost. Three important facts are often overlooked when we think about “ideation” or “brainstorming” or whatever new corporate speak we can come up with.


1. It’s not about the tool.
Blue Sky Thinking, Green Hatting, Red Threading, and Whiteboarding are just colorfully clever ways to organize the  time and structure of an idea development process. But in and of themselves they don’t guarantee the ideas that emerge will have any value. So don’t spend a ton of time overthinking the process. Coming up with ideas is ultimately a creative process and there is no true formula for creative thinking. There are good tips, and some helpful practices, but no one tried and true method. Find whatever format works for you and your team and run with it.

2. It’s not about being a “free thinker."
Here’s a lie that most people believe about creativity and finding fresh ideas: the most creative ideas are only discovered in a place of complete freedom, liberated from all restrictions. Bologna.

Sure, if maybe if your aim is to start a new avant-garde art movement you might resonate with this. Most of us just don’t live a world where we aren’t responsible to some outside force, even if the outworking of our creative endeavors. Musicians have an audience. Painters have a canvas size. Product developers have use-case scenarios. Rocket scientists have gravity.

So, if you don’t need to free your mind to find a good idea what do you need to do? Creativity, especially in business, is about responding to and solving known problems.

3. It’s about embracing limitations as assets.
Limitations aren’t a hinderance to good ideas, they’re the driver of good ideas. Understanding what can’t be done, whether for fiscal, social, moral, ethical, scientific, or other reasons, drives us to find solutions that work within what we know CAN be done.

Sometimes pushing the boundaries of what is possible is a part of idea development, but even then it begins with an awareness of the distinction between what is possible and what isn’t. When you identify the core limiting factors around your problem and need for idea and solution, you get a running head start to finding one that works.

And that’s what matter most. The only good idea is the one that makes it possible for you to accomplish your objective and solve your problem.

Even artists live and breathe this reality.

Don't believe that? Perhaps T.S. Eliot can convince you: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl."

So the next time you are headed into a “brainstorming” session remember these tips and just maybe you won’t feel like you wasted your time.