Brainstorming: The #1 Cardinal Rule and Why You Should Ignore It!


image: Luigi Mengato via Flickr

When I run a brainstorming session there are three rules that are non-negotiable: zero cell phones, one conversation at a time, and respect for my role as referee and ‘idea traffic cop’.

But I’ve learned that one popular brainstorming ‘commandment’ is counter-productive. In fact, to ensure you have the most spontaneous and productive idea-making session possible, you should ignore it at all costs.

#1 Brainstorming Rule to Ignore: ‘All Ideas Are Equal’

Why ignore it? Because ideas are almost never created equal. Since all employees are not equal, the weight and influence of their ideas in a brainstorming room aren’t either.

Yes, it’s true that a good idea can come from anyone, but rarely can you leave a company’s hierarchy at the door.

So accept that all ideas are not created equal, but that are are techniques you can use to ensure that all ideas are given equal respect.

Here are three techniques I use as a creative facilitator to level the idea-making playing field:

1. Respect each team member’s ideas with a little privacy

If there are particularly strong personalities or a vast range of experience in the group, I’ll ask each member to come up with 3 ideas on their own, instead of initiating a group exercise right off the bat. Sometimes I do this at the beginning of the session, sometimes I ask team members to bring them to the session, with each idea on its own index card.

I collect the cards, shuffle them and put them up on the idea wall, so that the source of each of the ideas is no longer identifiable and all idea live equally among each other.

A simple, but super effective way to begin.

2. Group ideas together to create anonymous alliances

Grouping ideas into ‘idea ponds’ lets session members see that others have the same or similar ideas and creates “alliances” especially among those with outlier ideas.

Then, when an idea is challenged, members do not feel like they’re defending their own idea, but are instead advocating as a group for the value of the ‘idea pond’. It’s a very different room dynamic and especially effective when the session has a very outspoken member.

3. Break into smaller teams to create ‘idea clans’

Once some collective information, insights, and shared understandings have been established, the group can usually start to idea-generate together. If the particular group dynamic warrants it, however, I break it into smaller teams each focused on a specific question, issue, or idea task.

There are three important benefits to this. The first is that individuals feel a greater responsibility to contribute in smaller groups. The second is that shyer or more reticent members feel more free to share ideas because there are fewer people judging them (another cardinal brainstorming rule is ‘don’t judge’, but people obviously do: it’s human nature.) And third, when the team presents its ideas the group owns them as a whole.

All ideas are not created equal but you can level the idea-making playing field so that they are all considered equally.

By building in the freedom of anonymity; grouping ideas into ‘idea ponds’ to help create affinities; and creating clans that own their ideas together, you foster spontaneity and a freedom for all members to contribute.

This greases the idea-making wheels, which means more possibilities for truly brilliant game changers and effective next-step initiatives.

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