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What Not To Do: Six Ways to Ruin a Brainstorming Session

By Paul Sloane

The brainstorm (or “thought shower” as it is sometimes called) is the most popular group creativity exercise in business. It is quick, easy and it works. Many organizations, however, are frustrated with brainstorming sessions and have stopped using them, believing that the tool is old-fashioned and no longer effective. But the real reason for the frustrations is that the brainstorms are not facilitated properly. A well-run brainstorm is fun and energetic; it will generate plenty of good ideas. A poor brainstorm can be frustrating and de-motivational. The following describes what not to do during your next brainstorming session.

1. Have No Clear Objective(s)

A brainstorming session with a vague or unclear purpose will wander and lose its way – set a clear objective. The purpose of brainstorming is to generate many creative ideas to answer a specific goal; it is best to express the goal as a question. A woolly objective is not helpful – for example, “How can we do better?” is not as good as “How can we double sales in the next 12 months?” However, the parameters of the questions should not be too detailed or it will risk closing out lateral possibilities. Using the previous situation, “How can we double sales, through existing channels and with the current product set?” is probably too constrained. Once the question has been agreed upon, it needs to be written clearly, and posted, for all to see.

It is valuable to set objectives for the number of ideas to be generated and the time to be spent on the process. For example, state that “We are looking to generate 60 ideas in the next 20 minutes. Then we will whittle them down to the best four or five.”

2. Gather Too Homogeneous a Group

If everyone is from the same department then creativity can be inhibited and the group may get “group think.” Choose the group carefully; the best size is somewhere between six and twelve participants. Too few people and there are not enough diverse inputs, but add too many people and the group can be hard to control and retain everyone’s commitment. Sprinkle the group with a few group members from other areas of the business or even from outside the business – people who can bring some different perspectives and wacky ideas. A good mix of people works best – varied ages, men and women, experienced and fresh to the business world, etc.

3. Let the Boss Act As Facilitator

Beware of having an autocratic boss join the brainstorming team. Such leaders can inhibit and/or shape the discussion, rather than letting it flow naturally. If the boss is present, then it is better to have a good independent facilitator – someone who will encourage input from everyone and stop any one person from being a dominant participant. Generally, the worst formula for a brainstorm is having the department manager leading the meeting, while also acting as scribe and censor.

4. Allow Early Criticism

The most important rule of brainstorming is – suspend judgment.In order to encourage a wealth of wacky ideas it is essential that no one is critical, negative or judgmental about an idea. Every idea that is uttered – no matter how “stupid” – must be written down. The rule about suspending judgment during the idea generation phase is so important that it is worth enforcing rigorously. A good technique to stop idea judgers is to issue everyone in the group a water pistol; anyone who is critical gets squirted.

5. Settle For a Few Ideas

Do not generate a handful of ideas and then start analyzing them. Quantity is great – the more ideas the better. Brainstorming is one the few activities in life where quantity improves quality. Think of it as a Darwinian process – the more separate ideas that are generated the greater the chance that some will be fit enough to survive. The brainstorming team should have stacks of energy and buzz driving lots of ideas. Crazy thoughts that first sound completely unworkable are often the springboards for other ideas that can be adapted into great new solutions. Keep the wild ideas coming!

6. Ignore Closure and/or Follow Through

Do not end a brainstorming meeting after generating lots of ideas with a vague promise to follow-up. If people see no tangible outcomes they will become frustrated with the process and lose faith in the process’ potential. The team members should quickly analyze the ideas at the meeting. One of the best ways to analyze the suggestions is to divide the proposals into three categories – promising, interesting or reject. If any of the promising ideas are so good that they should be implemented straight away then assign them to a staff member as an action item immediately.

Categorize and collect the ideas. On new pieces of paper write down all the promising and interesting ideas – consider separating them by which are marketing ideas, which are sales ideas, etc. Rearranging the ideas can help a team see new combinations and possibilities. Some people use Post-it notes at this stage so that the ideas can be moved around easily.

If the group is pressed for time, another option for selecting the best ideas is to give everyone on the team five points, with which they can allocate to their favorite ideas in any way that they want. (They can give one point to five separate ideas or all five to one idea.) Then total the points and select the best idea in the group for further action.

The brainstorming session’s facilitator should close the meeting by thanking everyone for their input. The leader should mention one or two of the best, most inventive or funniest ideas that came out of the session.


People enjoy short, high-energy brainstorms that lead to actions – whether large or small. These meetings can motivate people, improve efficiency and drive innovation.

About the Author:

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, a consultancy that helps improve innovation. He gives talks and workshops on leadership, creativity and innovation. He is the author of 17 books; the most recent is The Innovative Leader, published by Kogan-Page. Contact Paul Sloane at psloane (at) or visit