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How to brainstorm – ideas start with trust

by | Jun 15, 2022

If you want to know how to brainstorm, there’s as much to know about what you shouldn’t do as what you should. But there’s one golden rule that trumps them all…

There’s always lots of discussion about the good, the bad and the ugly of a group brainstorm when we work with organisations to up the ante on their creative output.

Most businesses can benefit from problem-solving training of some kind, and while brainstorming is not my go-to tool when helping them to improve their creative thinking, it’s a starting point that most people are familiar with.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we expect far too much from a single meeting (or ‘brainstorm’). I think we need to re-imagine the process or at least the outcomes.

Why badly-run meetings stifle creativity

I’m no fan of a badly-run meeting – which effectively a crappy brainstorm is. You’ll know if it’s badly run if there’s:

  • No agenda
  • No stimulus
  • A poor problem statement
  • No insights
  • Zero prep
  • No facilitation
  • Loads of assumptions, judgements, distractions and silo-protecting.

And that’s to name but a few. If it’s badly-run, then 99 times out of 100 the creative output in a brainstorming session will be weak. You don’t need a PhD to see why: it’s like asking why a team of under-prepared, bored automotive designers with no actual brief came up with a lousy car.

Call the idea-generating process whatever you like, but in my experience, brilliant creative and innovative ideas are rarely (if ever) the result of one person’s work start to finish. So we need to actively listen, to facilitate, to build on nascent thoughts and make room for discussion, debate and dissent – amongst other things.

This ‘creative abrasion’ is what aids the best ideas.

It’s not about ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’. Of course there are loads of terrible ideas in meetings or brainstorms or conversations. It’s what we do with them that counts – and also how we react. If we were scriptwriters, we’d just call it all material until we decided what to do with it.

How to brainstorm? It takes a whole team

With Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity coming up next week, a glance at a single entry will often show up to 20 people named as contributors. Academics and scientists, meanwhile, will cite many others in their own work.

Maybe the idea came from one person, and is (hopefully) based on an insight or data from another person or team. Then the fledgeling idea goes through multiple iterations and edits before it sees the light of day.

This HBR article is not new, but it’s still relevant here. It shows how the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

Risky ideas need freedom to breathe

Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off. These are just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs.

Amy Edmonson of Harvard has written extensively about this and created an assessment – the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey is a 24-item measure. Team psychological safety, defined as the extent to which the team views the social climate as conducive to interpersonal risk, is assessed.

Also measured are:

  • Internal team learning behaviours, including the extent to which team members engage in behaviours designed to monitor progress and performance against goals and behaviours designed to test assumptions and create new possibilities
  • External team learning behaviours, defined as the extent to which team members engage in behaviours designed to obtain information and feedback from others in the organisation or from customers.

The respondent must also provide information on team learning outcomes, which are defined as the learning benefits for individual team members as a result of working on this team.

Watch her short TED talk here

So when brainstorming, start with building trust and the ideas will follow.

If you’re interested in developing your creative abilities and problem-solving skills check out our latest courses.

Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

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