One Foot In

Rethinking The Brainstorm: How To Collaborate Better

Managing teams is no small feat, as any well-seasoned executive (or HR team!) will tell you. However, many managers lack the necessary training to be truly effective, and often lean on ineffective strategies for boosting productivity and collaboration. Take for example: the brainstorm.

Brainstorming is bullshit.

Harsh words we know. But brainstorms are ineffective. That’s a scientific fact.

So, why do we persist?

Primarily, it’s touted as a means to ‘foster collaboration,’ coupled with the aspiration to ‘increase productivity.’

Ironically, both brainstorming sessions and the ensuing meetings fail to do either.

Surprisingly, scientific research reveals that these practices not only fail to yield results but also have a negative effect on work quality and team dynamics.

The time has come to bid adieu to conventional brainstorming.

But before we delve into effective strategies, let’s examine what happens within a team that leads to this dysfunction and renders brainstorming ineffective. One Useful Thing, one of our favorite substacks, provides a simple explanation:

“As team size grows (represented by the numbers 1, 2, 4, 8), per-person productivity drops (indicated by the decrease in mean team person-hours). People on larger teams tend to slack off, assigning their work to less productive tasks and working with less urgency.”

When this accumulates, it can lead to a management panic, necessitating the use of brainstorming sessions. Unfortunately, most brainstorming sessions fall short as well.


So, why doesn’t traditional brainstorming work?

1. The loudest voice has “the best ideas”

This is a familiar scenario to anyone who has participated in a brainstorming session. Extroverts tend to dominate the discussion, people look to leadership for guidance, and valuable ideas often go unexpressed or unheard.

2. “No” is off the table

Leadership teams often discourage negativity, making it rare for dissenting opinions or objections to be voiced. While OFIOFO is squarely in the optimists camp, brainstorming becomes ineffective if any ‘fear’ is a driving force.

3. The judgment zone

Although no ideas should be considered “bad,” brainstorming sessions often become collective judgment exercises. Participants shy away from bold ideas that may be perceived negatively or, worse, offer safe suggestions to avoid criticism.

4. First-idea syndrome

Brainstorming sessions typically generate initial ideas, which may not always be the best or most thought-out solutions. Without sufficient time for reflection and refinement, teams waste their efforts on ideas that go nowhere.

5. Meandering and lack of structure

Brainstorms can become chaotic and lose focus as they progress. Many brainstorming sessions lack proper facilitation and guidance, leaving management with a jumble of thoughts that fail to address the core need and require additional work to sift through.


So, how can we ‘brainstorm’ better?

1. Preparation

No brainstorming session should start without participants bringing their work to the table. Set clear challenges and provide time for individual preparation. The duration depends on the task at hand, 5 minutes or 1-day, it doesn’t matter, but it is essential that everyone come with ideas to share.

2. Inclusion

Although it may be time-consuming initially, inclusive participation leads to significantly better outcomes and rapid team improvement. Encourage each team member to share their ideas in turn before building upon them. This creates a safe space for idea generation and ensures that the best ideas rise to the surface.

3. Facilitation

Guide the team through the process. Clearly define goals, connect activities, and ensure the session concludes with concrete solutions or actionable tasks.

4. Composition

The composition of the team matters. Social intelligence and diversity are crucial factors to consider. Include decision-makers and ‘do-ers’. Avoid inviting unnecessary participants, always adhere to the 2-pizza-rule.

5. Guidance

In their article on effective brainstorms, Stanford professors Utley and Klebahn emphasize the importance of guidance when it comes to creative cliffs. There is a common belief that creativity gets depleted, but research has shown the opposite to be true. By pushing forward and persisting, teams generate better ideas. With a skilled guide, you can set the stage and dispel any limiting beliefs that hinder outcomes.

6. Curiosity

Psychological safety is key to successful idea generation within a team. One effective way to promote this is through modeling curiosity. Instead of questioning or validating ideas, express your excitement and curiosity. This approach encourages exploration of more interesting and underlying concepts.

7. Iteration

Instead of relying solely on large group brainstorming, consider involving individuals or small groups who can work together to develop ideas further and expedite the process.

So perhaps the brainstorm need not retire. But don’t use the outdated model, ok?

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