Here’s Why Your Last Brainstorming Session Was a Complete Failure


Imagine yourself at the front of the room, standing next to a whiteboard with a dry-erase marker in hand.

There are 10 to 20 hard-working and intelligent people in the room, staring back at you with blank faces. 

A cold doubt begins to creep into your bones as you start to wonder if you are about to have a mutiny on your hands.

You ask yourself… “Why would they turn on you so quickly? “

What have you done so wrong to have them look at you with so much indifference and silence?

The tension is unbearable. You need to say something, but what? Ah, you've got it. "Remember, no ideas are bad ideas."

Ever been there? Ever been in the audience? Sure, you have, and it's an awkward experience for all. What went wrong? The truth is this: “Brainstorming Session” had been doomed at the moment it was named a “Brainstorming Session.”

Stop using the word “Brainstorm”

The word brainstorming has a weight around its neck, made up of guys in the 80s, wearing short-sleeve dress shirts and ties.

It immediately calls for a groan from anyone so lucky to be invited to the session. Nobody wants to attend your brainstorming session, and they certainly don't want you to show them that scene from the movie, Apollo 13, where the guy dumps a boxful of parts on a table surrounded by NASA scientists and says "failure is not an option" to inspire their thinking. 



Brainstorming got a bad rap when people started showing up to meetings led by people who didn’t prepare properly. Somehow, people thought they could invite people into a room and ask them to come up with ideas with no understanding of how ideas work.

When you send the meeting invite, use the specific problem you want to solve in the subject line of the meeting. For example, instead of “Brainstorming Session,” try “Revenue target gap closing discussion,” “New services in 2020,” or “Budget surplus investments.” Doing so will let them know the objective of the meeting and not give them a chance to roll their eyes.

Now that we got that out of the way, I’m going to give you five easy-to-implement ideas to help you get the new ideas you need without becoming the person everyone hates because you sent them a meeting invite with brainstorming in the title.

1. Spend more time on the question

This is the most crucial moment of the ideation process, and it’s the one people tend to spend the least amount of time on. They make assumptions and, sometimes, statements like, “well, everybody gets it; let’s start working on solutions.”

Not so fast, my friend; most people don’t get it, and even fewer of them care. They just came from another meeting where they added five more things to their to-do list. They have to take one kid to swim practice and another to soccer tonight, which means that they may not get to those to-dos until they get into bed. Your ideation session might be a priority for you, but it may not be for them. I've seen too many ideations, generating ideas that have nothing to do with the problem we are trying to solve.

Spend 25% of your time exploring the problem deeply. Give your people time to think and identify the questions they have about the problem.

It's also a good idea to send an excellent little summary of the problem and what the benefits may be of solving the problem in advance, so they have time to wrap their minds around it. Doing this will focus and enrich the idea generation step so that your people can get back to their to-do list.

2. Replace the void

The typical formula for brainstorming goes like this:  

What ideas do we have to solve problem X?

[long and awkward silence]

Remember, guys; there are no bad ideas!

That’s it. There is typically zero preparation for how we are going to generate the ideas. It’s just an open forum for people to throw out ideas. This is a terrible approach. People need constraints and stimuli to develop their best thinking. The void you just created gives them none of it.

 People love winning, if you haven’t noticed, so give them a game to play.

The Rules Game

Ask them to tell you all the rules of problem X, then ask them to select a particular rule and break it. What ideas does breaking the rule give you?

Empathy Game

Ask the team to describe customer demographics, attitudes, and behaviors. Then, have them look at the customer map they just created and generate ideas to solve particular elements for that customer.

Remove Steps Game

Ask the team to lay out the process you are trying to improve in detail, from beginning to end. Then, tell them that if there are 15 steps, they now have to remove two steps. Challenge them as to how they would do it.

Be Someone Else Game

Ask the team to imagine they were Disney or a Formula One Team. Have them do a bit of research. How would this type of team solve this problem?

New Guys Game

Tell the team that all of you will be fired at the end of the day. How would the new bold and brash young replacements solve the problem when you're gone?

3. Small groups work harder than big ones

The room setup matters. Giant boardrooms and U-shape arrangements do not foster creative thinking. You need small tables so that you can break up the teams into small groups. I've led hundreds of ideations, and the fact is that small groups work harder than big ones. Big groups provide safety in the crowd and allow people to be passengers while the talkers talk.

Break your group into teams of 3-4 and ask them to generate ideas, using one of the games above. This is called multi-tracking ideas and will generate a lot more ideas than had you tried to do it in a large group. The small group approach also creates a sense of competition among some groups. It also makes it safer to throw out crazy ideas because there are only a couple of people to hear it.

4. Everybody writes

If I only had a nickel every time I hear the words "my handwriting is terrible, you should write" in one of my workshops. Unfortunately, the majority of people who say this are dudes, but some of the ladies say it too. This is an important rule that I enforce in my workshops because the more people writing, the more ideas end up on the table.

Think about what has to happen for a scribe to capture ideas. People shout them out, and then the scribe has to decide what to write down. It creates a bit of a filter for what gets written down and slows down the process.

I tell my workshop participants to write down the first idea that pops into their heads and then say the idea out loud so that other people can build on the idea, then rinse and repeat. 

Groups that talk and talk and talk and later try to write down ideas or use a scribe way underperform the groups that have to ask for more Post-it notes. Ideas are a volume game, and bad ideas on a Post-it are more valuable than great ideas in your head.

5. Make it routine

How many brainstorming sessions have you participated in over the last year? One, two, five? Imagine if that was how many times you lifted weights or went for a 5K run. It would be horribly painful, and you would instantly want to bail out halfway through the workout. Why does this happen? It's because your muscles aren't conditioned for this kind of training.

Creativity is a muscle that needs to be worked more than a couple of times a year if you expect meaningful results. For an ideation session to be its most effective, its participants need to be creative thoroughbreds rather than reluctant donkeys, and the only way to do that is with practice.

I see all kinds of teams, and you can tell right away if creativity is part of their job description. Don’t for a second think your team is different because they are introverted or in finance or IT, or any other lame excuse. The most innovative teams I've worked with fit that exact description.

It's not the participant profile that matters as much as it is the amount of practice they have in putting their ideas on paper and sharing them with others. In the words of Maya Angelou, "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have."

Final Thought

There are millions of ways to make your ideation sessions more productive (It starts with calling them ideations rather than brainstorming), and I've tried to give you just a few to get you started.

What's most important is a desire to make them better and intentionally invest in your people by providing the skills and the practice they need to be more creative.

Be more intentional with your innovation, and I promise you that it will pay dividends. To help you out, we’ve put together a fun little creative journal for your capturing those little fragments of inspiration and ideas throughout the day.


Want to generate more creativity? Grab a copy of the Creative Journal.

Put your words into practice and begin realizing how creative you can be! Share with your team for a win of larger magnitude. Get your free copy today.

Jeff Shannon