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Brainstorming: great if done properly

Those who know me will know how much I hate meetings. That’s not to say I think they can never be worthwhile! I’ve attended dozens (probably hundreds) of meetings which were genuinely productive, and a couple of the most memorable ones ever were to brainstorm ideas. This is an exercise where a physical meeting is surely the most sensible strategy. But what makes a good brainstorming meeting work?

Brainstorming has been around since the 1950s, and is designed to use the interaction between members of a group to encourage lateral thinking. In the classic approach, a group of people gather together to generate ideas freely, with the focus being on quantity rather than quality, and building on each other’s ideas.

Many other techniques that have been devised over the years, including Reverse Brainstorming, Mind Mapping, Rapid Ideation, ‘SCAMPER’, Six Thinking Hats, ‘Role Storming’, Round-Robin Brainstorming, Random Word Association and Online Brainstorming. The list goes on and on.

What I like about a good brainstorming session is that it makes the most of getting people together, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. However, if run badly (and I suspect most are), it can be at best unproductive and at worst embarrassing. For that reason, brainstorming is not used nearly as much as it might be, and many of us have bad experiences of the technique. Those silences! That awkward, being put on the spot feeling! No thanks.

The best sessions I’ve ever been to were run by professional facilitators. They were enjoyable to take part in, and clearly productive for the organisers. They also got the participants engaged in the idea, and I suspect many of us made further contributions afterwards. So there’s clearly a serious skill involved in running such events. That comes with a cost, but if you know someone good, it should be a price worth paying.