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3 Powerful Alternatives to Your Team's Brainstorming

Businesses have been doing it for years, but does brainstorming really work?
President and Founder, Savannah College of Art and Design
June 06, 2017

These days, brainstorming is practically a national pastime. We all know how it works: The team leader poses an open-ended question and the group freely and speedily proffers ideas—good, bad and irrelevant—thinking that if inhibitions and fear of judgment are ignored, we might just find some gold in the sluice box.

Sounds intuitive, no?

Yet, brainstorming may not be as effective as we think. As economist William Duggan, author of Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation, suggests, the key to effective idea generation is, simply, "Stop brainstorming." Why? Because Duggan believes most creative thinking takes time and judgment—two elements that traditional brainstorming avoids at all costs. Try one of these alternatives the next time your team needs new ideas.

1. Give your team a heads-up before the brainstorming session begins.

Brainstorming relies on surprise attacks. Quick! Here's a question! Respond! Go! Instead, let your team know about the need for new ideas a few hours or a day in advance (too much lead time can be its own hindrance). Even if you're in a rush, give the team 10 to 15 minutes before the meeting to quiet their minds and jot down a few ideas. If you live in a walkable area, invite everyone for a stroll; that walk in the park can yield unforeseen ideas.

2. During the brainstorming session, promote a range of voices.

Orthodox brainstorming can favor extroverts. Instead of opening the floor to everyone, as can be the usual case with brainstorming, effective team leaders—like great teachers—should consider calling on introverts to speak first. Demureness of demeanor doesn't always indicate shyness. Or, organize into two prearranged teams to generate ideas before reporting to the larger group, placing more vocal members in one group and quieter participants in another. When it comes time to share ideas, don't be amazed if your introverts surprise everyone.

The most effective brainstorming sessions often have a strong editor who asks tough follow-up questions and gives shape and context to ideas as they're expressed.

—Paula Wallace, president and founder, Savannah College of Art and Design

3. Edit, edit, edit!

How many times have you seen a brainstorming session waylaid by undeveloped ideas and surrounding discussions? When quantity trumps quality, we may end up giving equal weight to ideas that won't work and we risk bad ideas ruling the day. The most effective brainstorming sessions often have a strong editor who asks tough follow-up questions and gives shape and context to ideas as they're expressed.

Ideas are like words—you have to know which one to use and when. A guiding editorial voice may filter ideas and help allocate meeting time to thoughts that have more potential and substance. The glory days of brainstorming are over. The real heroes of business, education and the arts know that genuine creative thinking is not magic. Invention requires serious thought, a clear mind and purposeful, critical thinking. 

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Photo: Courtesy of SCAD
President and Founder, Savannah College of Art and Design