There was a time when leaders thought they had found the solution to all workplace problems in collaboration. The concept just made sense, after all. By combining multiple viewpoints in the office, a team should be able to create a final product that’s much more than the sum of its individual parts. As collaborative initiatives began to return results, the business world fully embraced teamwork, knocking down cubicle walls to create an “open office” and infusing brainstorming into more and more meetings.
Then, something strange began happening. A backlash to brainstorming was born out of unproductive sessions and ideas that never came to fruition. What was the point of taking time out of daily tasks if all of that energy didn’t end up going anywhere? Unfortunately, a series of bad experiences can lead to employees turning their back on brainstorming, which is actually an extremely effective tool (when used correctly.)
It’s time to show brainstorming some love again! If you’re not a fan of this long standing technique, it may be because you’re not setting your team up for success. Here are five signs that you’re brainstorming wrong:

  1. You’re not preparing the team.

While it may be common to refer to moments of inspiration with ephemeral imagery, such as a spark or a light bulb turning on, creativity actually thrives with familiarity. Learning about something new then letting the thought simmer in your mind while doing any number of everyday activities – such as working out or cooking – can help you connect abstract ideas to real world actions, spurring new associations within your mind along the way.
Instead of blindsiding your team with the concept being discussed in the opening minutes of a brainstorming meeting, prepare them ahead of time with any necessary background that could help to inform the session. This way, no time is wasted getting familiar with the task at hand, and true collaboration can start taking place faster.

  1. You’re saying no.

This meeting of the minds is supposed to spur a flurry of ideas; it’s right in the name – brainstorming – for crying out loud! Unfortunately, creative momentum can be absolutely destroyed by introducing, “no” into the conversation too early. While its only natural to begin thinking of the little details that might affect the feasibility of a given idea, it’s important to hold those concerns until later.
In fact, you don’t even need to shoot down an idea outright to have a negative effect on brainstorming. “Yes, but” or “Yes, or” phrases can water down ideas by infusing criticism into the idea session. Instead, embrace all ideas with agreement by saying, “Yes” and attempt to build off that idea by following up with, “and…”

  1. You’ve got too many people in the room.

If you’ve ever worked in a group, you know that there are always types of people that can be roadblocks to collaboration. Social loafers along for the ride, production blockers who steal all of the speaking time and those apprehensive of evaluation can hijack any well-meaning brainstorming session. People are much more likely to slide into these destructive roles as group size increases, so consider keeping your brainstorming team size in the four to six participant range. This will allow for a variety of viewpoints to be presented, without becoming unmanageable.

  1. You’re only focusing on quantity, not quality.

While the early focus is on creating a ton of great ideas with, “Yes and…” language during brainstorming, the real reason brainstorming exists is to improve the quality of ideas. Once a pool of ideas has been generated, there needs to be another step in which the team digs into them one by one with thoughtful, constructive criticism.  Feel free to combine ideas and let the connections spur new ones! Here is where the sky high creativity of brainstorming meets reality.

  1. You’re not implementing your ideas.

Generating ideas can be a whole lot of fun and extremely empowering, but all of that goodwill is lost if the work goes nowhere. Employees will naturally feel more invested in the ideas that they had a hand in creating and developing, so disregarding accomplishments made in brainstorming meetings can, in turn, zap a team’s self-confidence and belief that they are being heard by leadership. Make sure individuals are assigned accountability for following through with ideas and set clear timelines for implementation to ensure real change is enacted. Otherwise, brainstorming really is a waste of valuable meeting time and doing more harm than good.
Brainstorming may have gotten a bad rap lately, but it’s only because this powerful tool for improving ideas has been misused time and time again. Before you give up on brainstorming, consider these tips for going about it the right way. What are your experiences with applying the brainstorming technique in your workplace? Share your ideas in the comments below!