Visually Blog Why Brainstorms Fail -- and How to Make Sure Yours Doesn't | Visually Blog

Why Brainstorms Fail — and How to Make Sure Yours Doesn’t

Lizetta Staplefoote

published on April 30, 2014 in Storytelling

“So, give me your best ideas.”

The room goes silent, pencils are fiddled with, eye contact is avoided — and the whiteboard remains blank. Or, a few dominant voices overwhelm the team and push half-baked solutions prematurely. So goes another unproductive brainstorming session.

The method of brainstorming was introduced by Alex Osborn, the “O” in the iconic ad agency B.B.D.O., in his 1948 book, “Your Creative Power”. He defined it as “a creative conference for producing a list of ideas – ideas which can be subsequently evaluated and further processed.”

Over the years, brainstorming has become a go-to-technique for idea generation. Steve Jobs was a big proponent of small brainstorming sessions that generated many of the cutting-edge advances attributed to Apple. Ken Segall, author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success and long-time collaborator with Steve Jobs describes Jobs’ strict enforcement of small meetings:

“When he called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome.”

Image: Shutterstock.

Image: Shutterstock.

Still, creatives tasked with producing bigger and better ideas for engaging content are well aware that brainstorming isn’t always a magic bullet. Any of these scenarios sound familiar?

“It’s already decided before they walk in”-storm

A few dominant parties manipulate the session, pushing their ideas on the group with little interest in generating new ones. “It is frustrating when the person leading a so-called brainstorming session has a particular outcome in mind and guides the session toward his/her predetermined idea,” says Glenn Reid, Managing Partner at Inventor Labs who, over a decades-long career as entrepreneur and engineer has worked closely with Steve Jobs to launch high-profile software products like iMovie and iPhoto. “Brainstorming is used as a way to say, ‘but we considered everyone’s input and had a couple of good brainstorming sessions,’ while implementing a solution that was already conceived ahead of time.”

“Why are we here”-storm

A meeting is called with little or no pre-planning or information distributed until you walk in the door. As a result, a big chunk of time is devoted to reading and digesting source information, asking questions and understanding the problem. This is where you may also find more attendees than needed. Jared Fanning, Creative Director at Visually explains, “The worst ‘brainstorms’ are everyone showing up with no ideas and no direction. I’ve found that, typically, group brainstorms don’t usually lead to any amazing ideas. The best results are when people come with some ideas ahead of time and share/discuss.”

Fanning’s advice: “Limit the number of people to only what’s absolutely necessary and give everyone a heads up, brief, or agenda about the brainstorm topics, projects, or goals.”

“Who’s in charge”-storm

A gathering where no one is charged with moderating the discussion, keeping attendees focused or recording the outcomes and following up with next steps. “A good moderator is key,” Fanning says. “Someone who can ask the right questions, make sure everyone is involved (introverts) and keep things on track (extroverts). Without this, most meetings in general turn into group dynamic/politics plays without really fostering any creative ideas.”

“We got nothing”-storm

You can turn a key to start a car, but creativity isn’t a turnkey process. “The real-time nature of brainstorming works to its detriment,” says Reid. Many of the most creative ideas come in solitude, in the shower, at the gym. Factors like a noisy atmosphere, wrong time of day or bad lighting can sap the creative energy out of the group. “Sometimes the ideas just aren’t good enough and you have to do more and more brainstorming sessions until [the right idea] comes up,” shares Mayra Magalhães, a freelance designer and creative director at the Visually Marketplace, where she has worked with clients like USA Today, PwC and Twitter.

“We all agree”-storm

Sometimes, groupthink takes over brainstorming sessions. Attendees find themselves agreeing on a less than stellar concept to avoid causing dissent, instead of offering up their true feedback or counter ideas. “The problem seems to be that the people in the room tend to start thinking like each other, taking cues from each other, and trying to grandstand a bit, instead of truly chewing on the problem looking for solutions, which is best done alone,” says Reid.

Image source: Shutterstock.

Image source: Shutterstock.


Instead of wallowing in past brainstorms that left you brain dead, look for ways to make brainstorming more productive. It is important to note that Osborn’s original definition only refers to the process of generating ideas, not sorting, selecting, and planning next steps — although these tasks are often layered into the modern brainstorming process.

Try these techniques to get the creative juices flowing the next time you need to generate ideas:

1. Start with individual brainstorming

Pre-distribute materials well in advance of the meeting to give attendees time to ask questions, do additional research, and take the time to think it through individually. Ask each to email two or three of their best ideas before they walk into the room. By getting their ideas before the meeting starts, you save time, have a few ideas to kick off the meeting and the ideas presented aren’t tainted by groupthink.

2. Grab the Sticky Notes

Dr C.C. Crawford, Professor of Education at the USC, invented the Crawford Slip Method, typically used with sticky notes. Put a note pad in front of participants to write, sketch, or diagram ideas that are then displayed for discussion. By writing ideas instead a verbal free for all, people tend to think freely without interruption and the playing field between introverts and extroverts is leveled.

3. Push the wagon

The Charette Procedure originated from the old practice of 1800s architecture students carting drawings around on wagons to get feedback and approvals. Using small groups, move ideas generated around for each group to refine or build on. The best ideas will naturally come to the surface, while the less practical ones will die in circulation.

4. Circle the troops

In what’s called Round-Robin Brainstorming, participants sit around a table and allow the first person to throw out their idea, followed by the person next to them and on until everyone has had a chance to contribute. This method ensures quieter voices are heard and encourages thinking on one’s feet, but requires an experienced moderator to keep discussions and contributions on topic and timed appropriately.

5. Get away

As environment is an important element of creativity, leaving the stagnant office space for new pastures can stimulate idea generation. Think outside of the box: art museums, quiet restaurants, a local park or lake. Escaping the office encourages participants to think broadly and speak more freely.

6. Play to your team

Traditional brainstorming isn’t necessarily the smartest way to get the best ideas out of you and your team. Instead, be in tune with your team and know what techniques stimulate their brain. Studies show that the more comfortable participants feel and the less they fear judgment, the more likely they are to generate more ideas. Ask your team what they prefer and build your meetings around those preferences. That may include some trial and error, but will lead to better idea generation — your ultimate goal.

For more creativity enhancers and idea generation tips, visit the MindTools Creativity Tools page.


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