What the Godfather taught me about creative brainstorming
May 9, 2017
Have you ever been in a brainstorming session that is anything but? Where you find yourself rehashing the same ideas over and over again? And where there are way too many naysayers and too few ‘screw-it-let’s-do-it’ folks?
We’ve all been there. Brainstorming sessions, when they don’t work, are soul-numbingly frustrating: you feel like you’ve wasted precious time, you’re no closer to achieving your objectives, and you hate the smartass across the table who keeps pointing out – with seemingly great relish – why your ideas will never work.
To achieve successful outcomes from a brainstorming session, you’ll need to apply a few rules – before, during and after the session. I’ve come to think of these as the Golden Rules That Must Be Respected, because I’ve noticed that anytime any of these rules are broken, the result is almost always going to be frustration and fatigue. So, with apologies to the Godfather, the following are my personal Golden Rules for successful B2B brainstorming.
Rule 1 – “Leave the judge. Bring the kid.”
Choose the members of your brainstorming team carefully. First, keep the team small, probably no larger than 6, so that everyone can contribute. Having too many silent team members can kill the creative spirit in the room.
Taking a leaf from the holy book of Myers-Briggs, the types of people who tend to thrive (and contribute) in brainstorming sessions are Intuitive (N) and Perceiving (P) types. In my experience, the Judging (J) types can be real downers in a brainstorming party. Purely because of their tendency to apply overly-structured thinking, and rushing to judge ideas before they’ve had a chance to really flourish and spark off other ideas. Worse, it kills enthusiasm, and discourages anyone from saying anything remotely outlandish.
However, I’m not advocating that you become an MBTI Nazi: if you don’t have enough N or P-types, you don’t have to pull in starving artists off the street to join your session. All you have to do is to make sure that EVERYONE involved comes into the brainstorm wearing the right kind of hat: it should be a propeller beanie, instead of a police cap. Be prepared to have fun, and remember to say this to yourself: “There are no bad ideas – merely unfinished ones”.
Rule 2 – “It’s not business, Sonny. It’s strictly creative.”
So now that you’ve brought the kid (and the cannoli), putting him in a sterile conference room isn’t going to help him really cut loose. Creativity is messy and fun: your environment has to be the same. Throw a whole bunch of bright, cheerful, totally-unrelated magazines (preferably with lots of pictures) onto the table and the floor. Stick weird, funny, or thought-provoking pictures on the wall. Randomize the height of the chairs. Push the table so that it’s off centre. Bring soccer balls, skateboards, twenty garbage bins, bells, gongs and Nerf guns into the room. Tear open bags of chips and Mars Bars.
Stick up flip chart paper all over the room, scatter Post-it notes everywhere, and give the team members lots of pencils and pens. Get everything written down or sketched out, so that everyone can “see” the idea, and you get a fantastic visual record of everything that came out of the session. And never throw away the charts: they’ll serve as great memory joggers later on, and may even help to spark off ideas for different projects.
Rule 3 – “When it comes to ideas, go to the mattresses.”
A brainstorming session is meant to produce ideas. Lots of ideas. It’s not meant to produce the perfect idea, and it’s definitely not meant to “crack the brief”. There will be time later to cluster the ideas in big groups, and to start applying your inner ruthless judge. But that time isn’t now.
If you’re the facilitator, keep the energy high, encourage everyone to come up with more ideas: crazy or otherwise. Get the team to hit a target of 20 or 30 ideas. The reason why I advocate a larger number of ideas is down to the 90-10 rule: 10 ideas will probably result in one workable idea at the end of the day. If you need to present three ideas to the client, you’re looking at a base case of 30 from the session.
Rule 4 – “If anything in this life is certain, it’s that anyone can be creative.”
Brainstorming doesn’t stop the moment the ‘official’ session stops. The best ideas may not necessarily come from the session itself; it may suddenly leap into your consciousness while you’re about to go to bed, or when you’re talking to your colleagues about last night’s movie. That doesn’t mean your session has failed; it only means that brainstorming – like being a good person – is not something you should do only during prescribed hours. Great brainstorming sessions can act as a catalyst for breaking up the crud that’s blocking up your creative ability. I guarantee that the more you do it, the better you’ll get.