I’ve been in many brainstorms throughout my career. Some have been absolutely amazing experiences where ideas are flowing out of people’s mouths like expletives from a bike messenger that was just cut off by a cab. A true organic flow of non-stop expression that would make most people stand back and say, “Wow.”
However, chances are most brainstorms aren’t that exciting or verbally robust. There’s a good bet that as the Brainstorm Moderator you’ll enter the room with high expectations. You’re armed with enough dry erase markers to color in all of the windows of your house, so many pads of paper that there’s a “Save The Rainforest” protest outside the room. But even with all of your excitement and planning you’re met with vacant stares, necks that can barely hold people’s heads up and one over-ambitious chat monster that cuts everyone off after their first 3 words. So what went wrong?
I’ve found that if too much emphasis is put on the brainstorm before the actual event, it can taint the creative flow and expression from the people involved. A quick way to kill a brainstorm before it starts is to have hints of “This is a HUGE opportunity for us! We just HAVE to nail it” or “C’mon, let’s come up with the biggest viral campaign ever!” These kind of statements put pressure on the participants and can make them second-guess their ideas before they even finish the thought. So what can you do to help keep the ideas flowing and the attitude relaxed?
1. KICK OFF THE OBJECTIVE THEN GET LOST
I like to get the team together for a quick informal meeting to go through the project brief, give them the opportunity to ask a few questions, and then let them go back to their offices to absorb the insights and process the information they just went through. This gives them the chance to do some research and exploration on their own. Then in a few hours we regroup for the actual brainstorm where they’re better armed and more relaxed during the process.
2. SOMETHING BOLD. SOMETHING DO.
While the team has been away exercising their creative research abilities, I ask that they think about two ideas that they can bring to the brainstorm. One is the “Something Bold”. This is the idea that we have no budget to execute; it’s never been done before and the client would likely freak out if we actually presented this. The sort of idea that gives everyone a good laugh. But then someone says, “That’s ridiculous! But imagine if we did X with that?” and then someone says, “RIGHT! But wait, we COULD do Y and maybe do it at Z. That would be soooo cool!” And right there you have the wheels turning and the team wanting to make that awesome idea fit into the project’s objective.
The other idea is the “Something Do” and this is the idea that is so expected that we know that it’s executable, on budget and the client would be “Hmmm, that’s fine”. It’s the idea that we know we can do but it’s just not that exciting. While the “Something Do” is typically vanilla, it will give the group the opportunity to use it as a starting point to dress it up in new and creative ways. Sort of like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Alone it was just a boring tree; but once everyone started to add their creative spin then “BAM”…Great idea!
3. DON’T ALWAYS LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Another way to keep the conversation going is to talk about brands outside the category you’re working in. While it may be a pet food brand you’re trying to solve for; it may also be a scientific pet food brand. So step away from the kibble bowl and look to see how non-pet scientific brands are positioning and presenting themselves. How are they making themselves come across as emotionally engaging and yet still maintaining their position as a science expert? There may be some tricks you can pick up from brands outside the category that could work for your client.
4. STOP BEFORE IT DIES
You’ve been brainstorming for three hours. The whiteboard is filled, the team’s necks are straining to keep their heads up and you still haven’t come up with the big idea. You have lots of little ideas but they just don’t seem to make sense. It’s time to put the brainstorm on hold. Send the team away. Let the ideas simmer in their heads for a while. Focus on something else and then revisit it again later. Stepping away from the whiteboard can actually make it a lot clearer at times. There’s a good chance that the ideas will start to connect on their own when you’re not trying to force fit them together.
5. LET THEM BE THEMSELVES
I’ve been managing people for a long time now and if I have learned one thing it’s that not everyone gets to the solution the same way. So don’t have the brainstorm be so rigid and scheduled that you’re trying to have everyone in the room follow the same process. If Trent is a doodler then let him doodle. If Steph likes to stand when she talks then let her stand. It’s not as important how you get there* as it is that you actually get there, and it’s amazing when you do. (*Although, if Lou’s nature is to interrupt people with passive aggressiveness, then don't invite him because he’ll likely infect the whole team and you’ll never get there.)
6. BRING A PET
I’m lucky enough to work in an office that has three team members that happen to be dogs. I can tell you from experience that having pets in the office helps reduce the stress level greatly. Pets let you take quick reality breaks by rubbing a belly or throwing a ball. These quick breaks do wonders for resetting your creative wires and get you back to a happy thinking place. So let the dogs into your brainstorm. They may not come up with the next big idea but they could just inspire you to do so.
But most of all, the most important way to keep a brainstorm from washing out is to have fun! A brainstorm is all about thinking creatively and expressing ideas. The more comfortable and relaxed the mood the better chances you have of ending up with a huge rainbow of an idea at the end of your brainstorm.