March 21, 2013
6 Tweaks For Better Brainstorming

If you’re facing a massive organizational problem, you probably have a default strategy: Get your best people in a room and try to come up with lots of solutions.

Such “brainstorming” has been popular since advertising executive Alex Osborn coined the term decades ago. It has its critics and proponents, but like all tools, brainstorming can be handled better if you think about what you’re doing.

Here are a few tweaks for peak performance.

1. Make sure you’re asking reasonable questions.

“How can we raise sales 15 percent?” won’t lead to a fruitful discussion if you don’t also think about who is buying your product and why. A more specific question, like “How can we convert more first time customers into repeat customers?” or “How can we raise sales among women aged 18-34?” will generate practical ideas.

2. Value your introverts.

Not all creative people like to speak up in groups. This is true even if they like the other group members and feel perfectly confident and comfortable with themselves. Groups have their own dynamics, and people may be sensitive to hierarchy, or may come from backgrounds that don’t encourage shouting things out randomly.

Ask people to contribute ideas individually before the brainstorming session. That way not only will you get the benefit of your introverts’ brains, you’ll already have a bunch of interesting ideas to start mulling and improving upon when you get in a room together.

3. Take a page from improv.

People studying improv comedy learn the “Yes, and…” technique. When you’re up on stage acting, you say “Yes, and…” to respond to whatever crazy thought a person throws out there. This helps you build upon each other’s ideas, slowly moving toward better ideas, rather than blocking momentum.

4. Set a time limit.

If you’re facing big problems, the temptation is to throw big amounts of time at them. It makes sense, but spending all day locked in a room is just overwhelming. A limited time period, like 90 minutes, keeps people focused. It also (hopefully) keeps the facilitator from allowing people to go too far down rabbit holes — drifting far from the matter at hand.

5. Take active breaks.

Physical activity has been shown to increase productivity. A brisk group walk to a nearby coffee shop could make for a much better second half of a brainstorming morning. Better yet…

6. Get out of the office entirely.

If your point is to come up with better and more exciting ideas than you normally hear at staff meetings, holding a meeting that looks a lot like a regular staff meeting might not accomplish that. Rent someplace comfortable, and you might just end up with a more comfortable team.

How do you encourage better brainstorming?

Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2012) and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She writes the 168 Hours blog for CBS MoneyWatch, is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and speaks frequently about time management and leadership topics. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Other Articles by Laura Vanderkam:

How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done

Why And How Managers Should Help Workers Set Boundaries

Work-Life Balance Is Dead—Why That Might Be A Good Thing

It’s Time To Stop Asking CEOs How They 'Balance'

How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload

7 Common Mistakes New Managers Make

The Right Way To Use Company Perks

How To Figure Out Your Most Productive Time Of Day

Why You Should Rethink That Morning Meeting

5 Ways To Keep Your Best Employees From Quitting