3 Ways to Brainstorm for Awesome Results

I remember sitting with my bandmates in the Evergreen Club a few years ago in a planning session. (We’re an 8 member group and we play a set of beautiful instruments from Indonesia called a Gamelan, the music is exotic and wonderful).  btw - want to relax while you read this? Listen here

We were trying to come up with ideas for the next couple of concert seasons. We’ve been around a long time and have done some pretty good gigs, but it still falls on us to create some kind of plan to move forward. We need to get pieces written for us, look for presenters for our current repertoire and festivals to play in. Like many of you in the corporate world, we need to brainstorm plans and solutions.  I'd like to share our experience with brainstorming with you

Brainstorming is tough for any group of people and I'd like to share some things I learned from that experience as well as share some research I've been doing on better brainstorming.

Oh, I know, just saying the word “brainstorm” creates fear and loathing. It’s a word that makes people cringe and perhaps run in the other direction. It’s a process that many people consider a true waste of time. But it needs to be done in order to come up with some new ideas.   


Maybe you know that advertising executive Alex Osborn popularized the term “brainstorming” in his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving in 1953. I think it fair to say we are all familiar with his model.

Get a group of people together and then:


1)    Get lots of ideas.
2)    Don’t criticize.
3)    The wilder the better.
4)    Mix it all together and improve.
5)    Voilà, problem solved, product created.

It is interesting that more than 60 years later, this is still a model that is kicking around even though I am sure most of you could make a list of why this method is not working for you. And I bet you’d rather hide in the mailroom than go to a “brainstorming” meeting.

Now I can’t fault the guy, it’s actually a beautiful thing to think that a group of people could all sit down together and on cue just start throwing out good (and bad) ideas and come up with an incredible solution.

But the trouble with brainstorming is that people are people, and despite our best intentions we all typically fall into the same traps.

Here are some dynamics that occurred in our own Evergreen Club meeting:

1)    People showed up late.
2)    It took a while to get going.¬ OMG, always!
3)    Some people were distracted.
4)    We are mix of extroverts and introverts so not everybody speaks up.
5)    Only a couple of people hold the floor.  
6)    One idea dominates, influences other ideas and can take up a lot of time.
7)    It’s easy to go off on a tangent.
8)    Ran out of time - no decisions made.
9)    Scheduled another meeting!

Yes, I am sure you could have written that list too from one of your meetings.  Then one day, one of the guys decided we needed a different approach.

He seemed to think that we would benefit from a better meeting structure and some time for individual reflection.  So before the next meeting (with plenty of notice) we were to individually brainstorm on the topics we needed to address on our own time. We were to do some research on the viability of our (sometimes wild) ideas. We could exchange the odd email or get together in smaller groups to informally talk about ideas if we felt it would help, but nothing big.  

The difference in the next meeting was astounding. Everyone got a turn to share their ideas and we all had some suggestions. There were even some similar ones, which was interesting.  There was more of a tendency to really flesh an idea out. Lo and behold, decisions were made and next steps decided upon. What a difference!  

So did new ideas evolve? Absolutely!  Did we throw out some ideas? Absolutely. Did we leave the meeting feeling like we got something done? Absolutely. Did we solve everything? No, but that’s okay. We moved forward and that’s just what brainstorming should do for you. 

In writing this blog, I decided to see what’s out there in terms of new ideas about brainstorming and there are some great ideas.

Here are three interesting models I came across:

1) Working in charettes (which was kind of what my group did unknowingly)

According to Wikipedia, “charette” means any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. While the structure of a charette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into subgroups. Each subgroup then presents its work to the full group as material for further dialogue. This is a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people.

But this is what “charette” really means. It’s brainstorming with a structure where everybody gets a turn, which puts the extroverts and introverts on an even playing field. Everyone presents one idea at a time (time divided equally among participants), the ideas are then debated and the good ones recorded.

What’s really important here is that everyone is given all the pertinent facts and information to mull over well before the meeting and they have time to do their own thinking about it.

If you’d like to know more, refer to this website, which I really liked and which explains it well.  Click here to view.

2) “Brainswarming”  - Have you heard about how ants share ideas and build on them?  

Brainswarming is best explained by its creator Dr. Tony McCaffrey, in this four-minute video. It’s well worth the time to watch. Click here to view.

3) Anticonventional Thinking (ACT) - You may have heard of Jeffrey Baumgartner. He has designed a concept called Anticonventional Thinking (ACT) and has done an interesting Ted Talk on the process, which you can find here.  In short though, it’s a 6-step process I have outlined below, although I can’t do it justice in this blog. I have only captured his basic ideas here, so you should go to his site to really understand it.

a)    Make a situation transcendental.

When you stop, think and decide not to do the conventional thing in a given situation but, instead, look for an unconventional, creative action you might take it becomes a transcendental situation; it transcends ordinary situations where you would normally take conventional action.

b)    Play with the situation.  Dr. McCaffrey suggests meditation, questioning and anticonventional questioning and letting the situation sit and your mind wander.

c)    Optional: Formulate a “sexy” (or extreme) goal, designed as goal that is provocative, desirable and interesting.

d)    Build a creative vision. You build a single creative vision by testing ideas in your mind and rejecting those that are too conventional or not viable.

e)    Build an action plan. To make your creative vision less intimidating, break it into small, manageable steps.

f)    Do it. The No. 1 reason that creative ideas do not get implemented is because no one implements them. Fortunately, that is an easy situation to rectify. Just do it!

So from what I have heard, read and experienced about brainstorming, we don’t have to go back to the ’50s or ‘60s way of doing things.

Multiple sources and your own experience have proven this just doesn’t work. It’s time to look at some different perspectives. There is a great upside to brainstorming with your teammates in that it can build respect and camaraderie.

You could even develop your own brainstorming structure that works for your specific needs. That’s what I do for my breakout sessions wherein I challenge my program attendees with coming up with a performance they will create and then perform in under an hour. I keep the groups small, give them all the info up front and a structure to follow. In my case, I keep them on task by helping them sift through the ideas so they can take advantage of their unique abilities. But even though I am helping, they’re the ones who come up with the outcome through brainstorming and it’s surprising what amazing performances they come up with.

So I hope I have given you some hope.  Don’t give up on brainstorming; the power of a group of people is still the best and fastest way to solve many challenges. You just need to go out there and find a method that works for you. And it looks like many other people have brainstormed some new ideas for doing that already. Of course, you could always come up with your own method, but that would involve even more brainstorming!