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Brainstorming can be frustrating, result in endless meetings and worst of all feel like a waste of time. It doesn’t have to be that way; brainstorming can be an effective method of generating ideas and coming to concrete conclusions. All you need is a bit of understanding of why brainstorming typically fails and a willingness to change your approach. (In this way, it’s a lot like PPC…and a lot of the values of effective brainstorming translate to effective PPC as well.)

brainstorming

Brainstorming is a fun team activity and opportunity for your designer to mug for the camera. Creatives can’t live without ’em.

Fortunately there are many approaches designed to overcome problems teams experience when brainstorming. At my firm, Tiko Digital, we have been experimenting with them for the last few months. Brainstorming sessions have helped us flesh out some great ideas, and best of all, it’s a lot of fun. I will share with you some reasons that brainstorming session fail and recommendations for improving your brainstorming sessions.

Brainstorming failure is human nature

Brainstorming sessions typically consist of participants throwing out ideas and seeing what sticks. Lack of structure is the norm, and participants are encouraged to shout out ideas. Those ideas get discussed, argued, and written down on a whiteboard, often at the whim of the person holding the marker. The result of the session is a large list of ideas, no real conclusions, and sometimes some hurt feelings.

Recently, I attended a workshop on improving brainstorming by Dr. John Sexton (neuroscience), an experienced improv performer. Learning from someone who studied the science of how the brain creates ideas and hones his own creative toolset so diligently made for a compelling workshop. A key point he shared with us is that the part of the brain used to generate new ideas is also the part that handles our fight-or-flight responses. When a participant shares an idea and is critiqued in real time, it is natural to fight for and protect our ideas.

Our brains naturally tell us to play mother bear to our own ideas. When a cub is confronted, a mother bear doesn’t react calmly and discuss the relative merits of poking her cub; she more likely tries to eat you. (Not the tone we want to set for collaborative creative activities.) You can likely see why this is a problem; we’ll discuss how we can avoid those feelings a little later, but let’s start with some more practical tips.

Set Up Your Playground

A)    Allow appropriate time

Oddly, it’s not about having too little time. We have done some quick brainstorming sessions in less than 30 minutes that were fun and helped us flesh out some good ideas. The most important thing I have discovered is the need to set a specific time limit. In open-ended sessions our team consistently gassed out between 60 and 90 minutes, fatigue became evident, and progress stalled. Cap your session time appropriately to maintain focus.

B)    Create the appropriate space

post-its brainstorm

Post-It notes are a great way to make an idea more tangible.

We have tried sitting down at the board room table. We have tried standing. I have found standing added a bit of energy to the process. Keeping distractions to a minimum is important – turn off cell phones. Also helpful are whiteboards, markers, and Post-it notes to help you keep track of ideas and arrange (and re-arrange) them.

C)     Pose a specific question

The point of brainstorming is to facilitate the creation of new ideas, but those ideas are not much use if you are not addressing the same issue. Constraints are your friends. Asking a focused question gets all team members thinking about the same problem. Reduce the number of variables so you can get more definitive results. A good question is how can we improve conversion on Page X versus how can we speed up the Adwords ad approval process? Some problems are too broad, real, and painful.

Break the session into distinct sections

Recently, I purchased the book Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. It is filled with games you can use to improve your brainstorming sessions. In the introduction, the authors explain how a game provides a framework to get to a tangible outcome very much related to the brainstorming process. You can buy the book or visit the site gogamestorming.com to discover some of the specific tools you can use to facilitate better brainstorming.

In this presentation, Dave Grey, one of the authors of Gamestorming, explains the process of a game and how you can apply it to brainstorming sessions. (Go ahead and watch. We’ll wait.)

The model of the opening, exploring, and closing also has less tangible but just as important advantages. Dr. John Sexton, in his workshop, explained that the idea generation model David Grey outlines better suits our brains by allowing us to 1) separate idea generation from critique, preventing our natural momma bear response and 2) use the full capacity of our brains in the exploration phase to categorize and correlate ideas – the single thing that our brain does the best.

A)    Open By Generating Ideas

opening brainstorm

At the end of the opening phase, you will have many ideas to process.

In this phase of the brainstorming process, encouraging unfiltered idea generation is paramount. Creating an environment where people can generate ideas without judgment is critical. Let the ideas flow.

In our recent experience, an effective technique for facilitating idea generation is to let people come up with ideas separately. Specifically, we set a timer for 15 minutes and let each person retreat to his/her own office, come up with responses to the posed question, and record them on Post-it notes as words, phrases, or even doodles.

B)    Explore the Ideas

brainstorm exploration

Collaborate and discuss the ideas and find connections.

Using Post-it notes is great because they give each idea its own physical container. Ideas can be moved, stacked, or removed with ease. One of the most successful games we use is called Affinity Mapping – grouping collected ideas in undefined categories and letting the categories emerge in the exploration process. Using Post-it notes make it easier to move each idea into distinct categories rather than constantly erasing and rewriting ideas.

I am always amazed by two things in a properly run exploration phase: 1) how quickly participants forget who owns each idea (no momma bears) and 2) how quickly connection between ideas emerge. You can really see how effective the human brain is at grouping and sorting.

c) Close and leave with something tangible.

brainstorming editing phase

In the closing, start editing and trimming down ideas.

Once we have process, categorize, and find the connections between our ideas, we can start the editorial process. In the closing phase there should be two goals. 1) Make choices and come up with conclusions. 2) Leave with something tangible, a clearly defined call to action (e.g. We are going to hold an art show for our friends and clients at our offices), or a physical representation of the conclusions (e.g. transforming the results from our sessions into an experience map for web design clients). Both of those examples are real conclusions from Tiko Digital brainstorming sessions. Below, the result was our website development guide.

brainstorm takeaway

Having a real takeaway is important. Above is a web design process diagram resulting from a brainstorming session.

Brainstorming is a lot like PPC

Pay per click marketing done poorly is expensive and time-consuming and yields poor results. PPC done well can yield impressive results. A well-executed PPC campaign involves understanding where to focus your energy and using the tools properly; everyone in PPC knows a great campaign is a well-organized campaign. Just like brainstorming, the difference is simply approaching the task the right way.

I hope I have given you some food for thought. Often as Internet marketers, especially on the PPC side, flipping on and off ads and processing spreadsheets of data engages the rational sides of our brains. I know I often wrongly discount the creative aspects of marketing and turn to my portfolio of winning tactics.

When your go-to tactics fail – which they will – you need somewhere to turn to get your creative juices flowing. Brainstorming is something we at Tiko Digital use to generate new ideas and come up with new approaches. I encourage you to discover how to run effective brainstorming sessions, generate some new ideas, and have a bit of fun along the way.