What To Do When Brainstorming Goes Bad

Ideafluenza. Conceptitis. Imaginationache.

OK, maybe it doesn’t have a witty name. But there’s a definite condition that infects the brainstorming process and leads to ideas that don’t move anyone’s needle.

1) Kick off before we try to kick ass

Our old process was to invite everyone in a room, have the account executive give an explanation of the solution, and then start throwing around ideas.

The problem? Wrapping your head around something complex or new is a big enough task for one meeting. And going straight from “understanding” to “imagining” is a difficult mental exercise.

So we started having a brief kick-off meeting a day or two before the first work session. It gives everyone time to absorb what we’re being asked to do and ensures that we create ideas with a deeper comprehension of the content and objective. Our team now gets a briefing, heads off to let it marinate and start forming ideas, and then reconvenes to brainstorm.

2) Be exclusive

Our previous approach was to invite everyone in the company to brainstorm sessions. It was a lot of fun. But we realized it was not the best way to generate in-depth ideas, especially as our company grew. We found ourselves ending up with a gigantic scattershot of ideas that only kind of worked. Having too many participants in the meeting pulls the conversation in too many directions, too quickly—leading to ideas that are more amusing than valuable getting the spotlight and decent ideas getting left behind without deeper exploration.

These days, we keep the sessions to the core project team: usually one writer, one designer, one account executive, and our creative director. It’s much easier to bounce ideas around and play them out more thoroughly. It also requires that people be truly engaged and not simply participating in a free-for-all.

3) Rekindle the spark

In addition to rethinking our process, we looked at exercises and activities that made us think differently. We now experiment with mind games and techniques like brainwalking to constantly shake things up. Some activities work better than others, but overall they keep us fresh.

4) Spread it out

We also had to admit to ourselves that we couldn’t generate great, bulletproof ideas in a single meeting. Instead, we determined you’ve got to step away for a while to realize that maybe that joke wasn’t that funny or your brilliant metaphor is actually saying the wrong thing.

We’ve started having additional meetings between the initial brainstorm session and the client delivery day. It provides more opportunities to refine and critique. We also now test ideas on team members with no knowledge of the project to see how they hold up. We find that these additional gatherings help us turn mediocre concepts into good ones, good ones into great ones, and sometimes even total throwaways into clear-cut winners.

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