Virtually every week of the year I have a group of employees in a room all working on a task: to redefine what they’re doing today by painting a picture of what they could be doing tomorrow. Due to the limited time together, teams try to get as much done as possible. The exercise I hate leading the most is the group brainstorm. Why? 1) Because most people can’t do it and 2) The team wants to finish the tactical part right afterward.
Great ideas can’t be forced. Great ideas don’t have a single iteration. They aren’t instant. Great ideas don’t come from everybody. So why do we expect good results from short brainstorming exercises? Because you can get some pretty good ideas. They may not be game changers but most can be run with immediately. They don’t take a lot of feasibility or work to implement. Good is good enough.
It actually works okay for average to slightly-above average teams. You can survive and even have a small win every now and then. You won’t be a pioneer. You won’t achieve real breakthrough. The following example may seem simplistic, but it’s the essence of what I see work really well in the work world too.
Fifteen years ago I worked with a group of ten teenagers as a director for a musical dance routine. They would first compete at the state level and if did well enough would go to the national level. We had done it the previous two years before with limited success. The first year we somehow made it to nationals but didn’t do well there. The second year we didn’t make it to nationals. This third year I didn’t want to do it. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility rests on the director, especially with a bunch of teens.
Here is what I did: I gave them the picture of what we wanted, what we were looking for and what we could achieve, and then gave them the reins. Of the ten members, one’s creativity stood out. (It’s no wonder he is in a creative field as a fashion videographer now) He came up with an unexpected accompaniment song. The theme flowed naturally from there. I had a couple of ideas for key “wow” moments during performance. That guy always pushed it to the next level. During our preparation for competition he constantly added new ideas. We built off each other, adding one great element after another as the team rehearsed it.
The team dominated at the state level, easily taking first place. Before nationals the routine was further enhanced. In the end, they placed fourth in the nation, a far cry better than anything in the past. The whole group had to execute flawlessly, but I attribute the key creative aspects to just two people, myself as the director and that one member. We did things no one had imagined before, feeding ideas from each other. It took time and it took building from one initial idea.
I have found that group brainstorm activities almost always hinders excellent ideas. The truly great ones get shot down by the self-identified realists. Realists are needed but not at the creative, imagination points. My advice: take them out and add them later. Also, don’t expect greatness from a single session. Iteration is critical. One impossible, crazy idea can loop around and around until a legitimate, amazing idea comes out. Give the creatives some space and time.
The next time you gather a group of employees in a room to brainstorm, remember these examples. If you’re after average or slightly-above average, go ahead with the group over a specified time. If, however, you want a game changing idea, isolate the creatives and give the idea some time to percolate.