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Moving Beyond Words: Tips for Better Group Brainstorms

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The following advice sounds easy to put into practice, but it isn't.

If you're participating in a major brainstorm, you need to move beyond conversation as a way of communicating your creative ideas.

Act out your layouts. Make physical prototypes. Role-play different scenarios in character. Challenge the need to provide critique. Leave your rational mind behind and feel free to go random, as long as your launch pad is the creative brief. And always have someone record every idea that's being shared in the room, from start to finish—both in word and in sketch form. Record everything on video if you can't take notes fast enough.

Why is it so hard to foster ideation that extends past the spoken word? Companies like IDEO have been plugging this mindset for eons, but I sit in brainstorm after brainstorm where people fall into ideation patterns. One person has an idea, which they share out loud. Then another person has an idea, which is verbalized in the same manner. There's a slow verbal dance back and forth about those ideas. Sometimes, someone writes that idea down on a whiteboard or notepad. We explore through language the nooks and crannies of what's being communicated through only one medium: spoken words.

This is a real shame, because there is important information not being communicated about your ideas—nuances and options that aren't being communicated, captured, and otherwise emoted.

And that extra information is where the real surprises happen in a brainstorm. The more information you get into the brainstorming group, the more ideas you'll get out as a result. This is just simple math.

If you don't understand this need to include verbal, written, sketched, and acted-out information as part of your brainstorming output, watch this great brief video by Maya:

Why does struggle persist around moving from conversation into performance in a brainstorm? I think this has to do with falling into patterns: in behavior, in choice of methods, in history with a client, in who likes or dislikes whom as part of a group of employees. You may not even be conscious of the patterns, but they will govern the dynamic of your meeting.

And the common result of falling into a brainstorming pattern is that you only collect one type of information as the output—most often, the spoken word. Also, based on previous efforts with your team, you jump to conclusions about other people's ideas based on perceived biases.

These patterns can be broken more easily than you can imagine.

No matter whether it's the first time you're brainstorming with a new client team, or if you're sitting down with your close friends and colleagues for ideation meeting #234, apply concerted effort to stop loosely repeating patterns. You need to consciously choose how you're going to vary the meeting activities to make your brainstorm more effective.

Not more productive, mind you. The end goal should be to launch into orbit. Try these tips:

Snap the brainstorming team into smaller working groups, then reconvene those groups to share ideas. In small working groups, you can have three or four conversations going concurrently instead of one large one. In those groups, you can choose to use different brainstorming methods to encourage different kinds of ideas as output. Then, after those small groups have met, bring them all back together to share their learnings and synthesize the ideas into more radical results. Also, by choosing to split the room into teams, and pairing people together that have had less time to form working patterns, you can use that fresh contact to encourage creative friction.

Collapse your timeframe and force the process of making. You'd think that endless time would encourage more creative thinking. I've found the opposite: Cutting long brainstorms into discrete "time-boxes" of even ten minutes in length, stopping for brief assessments, then moving into new activities forces more ideas out more quickly. However, this approach requires discipline. During those time-boxed segments, there must always be output on paper. Otherwise, ideas get lost in the quick flow of activity.

Give people license to not be themselves. Hand out hats or other physical objects that give your team the license to get "outside themselves" and act in ways that may be considered silly or stupid by a layperson. Again, the goal here is to break patterns and create empathy. Perhaps you could dress up as your persona and spend some time talking about problems you've been having throughout your day—then act out how those problems are solved. Another person on your team could then pick up another object that makes them the computer, and they can have a conversation with your persona about why they just can't get along.

Be radically divergent in how you gather brainstorming inputs. Brainstorming always has inputs, usually from research, a creative brief, lived experience, and so forth. Augment that data by leaving the office and getting into the flow of real-world experience as a launch-pad. If you're trying to prototype how to create a better espresso maker, go to the coffee shop and have two of your teammates chat up the barrista while another teammates takes notes and observes how the coffee is made with their machine. And maybe another person goes and asks commuters how they like their coffee, and why they buy it there. Then quickly convene and commence ideating off your observations. Your brainstorming may come from being out in the world and in the flow of experiencing the world, not from talking in a conference room.

Don't make it work to do the brainstorming work. The idea of brainstorming as work is an illusion that should be killed without mercy. Find ways to remove the context of work from the experience. This can be as simple as describing ground rules for your brainstorm at the start of the meeting, then enforcing them by demonstrating the rules through your behavior. Yes, this means that you'll be the one acting out how the blind person is trying to find their boxer shorts when they wake up in the morning. Tough.

Be unforgiving when people snipe at ideas. Don't allow criticism or judgment to impede the flow of ideation until critique is absolutely necessary. Don't wait to nip negative comments in the bud!

Forget considerations of quality until you've got quantity. Don't stop at three or seven ideas, even if a few of them are deemed midstream by the group as killer. There are always more ideas out there that could augment your thinking in unique ways.


James Lytle

Excellent thoughts and video! Stripping the everyday person of their understanding of information communication and design is my life's struggle! (currently) I think some of these thoughts expressed in this particular way are quite helpful.

Andy Polaine

Great post David and thanks for putting up that video. I think the main reason for falling into these patterns is corporate culture, even within a design studio setting.

If you look at the rules of brainstorming, they are pretty much the opposite of what the usual business culture is, which encourages sniping, competitive, uncooperative, pressured and role-based behaviour.

It's very hard to convince people to take suspending those habits seriously if they’re not taken seriously at a company culture level. I think this is why IDEO are successful in this way and why so many other companies fail to bring 'innovation' into their culture, despite bringing in consultants who specialise in innovation. The consultants, of course, are temporary blips, outside the main culture of the company, so easily dismissed after they have gone.

Much of this is to do with the whole notion of companies in the first place and Alvin Toffler goes deep into this in The Third Wave, which I can highly recommend.

David Sherwin

Thanks for the comments. Andy, I do love Alvin Toffler's ideas around this, and have been especially a proponent of the idea of fostering adhocracy within creative organizations / steering clear of hierarchy and standard business procedure.

Let's see what happens when businesses of scale actually try to adopt these models. At least it'll keep us in business. :)

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