How to make sure lightning actually strikes at your brainstorming meeting

I love working with other people to come up with ideas. But in general, I can't stand most organized brainstorming sessions.

The intent of such gatherings is admirable but such gatherings often fail to produce the desired result: Like the killer idea that helps win a new account, generates  a more efficient work process, or makes for the most "fun annual outing" ever. Every day, hundreds of companies and organizations herd people in to rooms to come up with the next big thing. What they often get is a room full of people looking constantly at their watches or daydreaming about the spareribs they're going to eat later.

But no one appreciates something that works more than a skeptic. And I have experienced brainstorming that has produced very good results. Now having a "rule book" for something designed to generate a free flow of ideas seems a little obsurd to me. So, here's a brief review of what can work in brainstorming and what to avoid. No rules. Just reason.

1. Don't use brainstorming to "sell."
Too many sessions that are billed as brainstorming events are really designed to convince others of the merits of a preconceived idea. That's not brainstorming. It's a "presentation with audience feedback." Stage a brainstorming session only when pure idea generation your only goal.

“Selling” can occur in unexpected ways, too. Say your topic is "new events we can have to improve employee morale." With this, someone is already advancing the assumption that picnics and office parties will take care of a morale problem. Maybe a stinker employee is the actual problem. Or it could be the fact that senior management policy changes have made selling your product more difficult.

2. Make sure that your contributors are "creatively" qualified. As an advertising writer and creative director, I have been a productive contributor (my opinion) to hundreds of brainstorming sessions. But I would be a totally inappropriate contributor to a session where new financial risk derivative ideas were being discussed. Make sure you limit invitees to those who will be comfortable and productive contributors to the session.

Invite the maintenance guy to a brainstorming session about the company picnic, but let him stick to replacing fixtures during the session about which HR conferences to attend next year.

3. The smaller the better.
I have a long-standing belief that the more people in a group, the less individually productive each person will be. So a room with 10 or 12 people in it only gets about 10% productivity per individual. Just my theory. But gee, that's gotta be the reason why companies put us into individual work environments (offices or cubicles) in the first place, right?

I think the most productive "brainstorming" sessions are those with the fewest people--usually people who consider themselves equals. Smaller groups are less likely to encourage showoffs and more likely to motivate thoughtful participation from everyone in attendance. Five or fewer people is the ideal group size for brainstorming. In advertising, a session of two brainstormers can be terrific. And sometimes you can do that at a bar.

4. Surprise. We just had a brainstorming session.
The best brainstorming sessions are those that don't get pre-announced or oversold. “Spontaneous" is probably the best description. Two or three colleagues or partners called into your office or invited to lunch can easily do the idea-generating work of 15 people in a conference room. You can have a surprise brainstorming session with larger groups, too. Just make sure those you call are only people who have the ability and interest to be good contributors (see #2 above). Surprise helps to assure spontaneity and originality. It also prevents someone from over-preparing or worrying about how good he or she will look in the session.

5. Watch out for the "smartest guy in the room."
The larger the group, the more likely it is that one or two individuals will try to take over the event. The most active, talkative persons in a brainstorming session are usually the ones most hell-bent on selling their own ideas. Or they're showing off for higher ups. Make sure everyone can speak, even if that means holding everyone to some sort of “time limit.” If you are the smartest gal or guy in the room (or have rank) be careful not to overpower others. Better yet, consign yourself to the role of facilitator.

If your group or organization has a number of smarty show-stealers, consider putting them in their own separate brainstorming session. Then cancel it at the last minute. You probably get plenty from them already.

6. Oh yes, the dreaded specter of accountability
. You need to be organized without looking constrained by process. Keep good notes or designate someone to do this for you. Consider a tape or digital recorder so that the note taking is not a focal point of the effort. Also keep everyone focused on an objective—one that is clearly expressed and understood by everyone in attendance. Announce the objective clearly at the beginning and circle back to it when participants go astray.

To keep your brainstorming session from being simply an escape from "real work", make sure you have a written or alternate way for people to provide input. Request that people complete a short questionnaire or follow up by email. Not only will this make everyone in the room think a little, it will give the shy participants a way to contribute "off line." Obviously this may not be necessary in a "lunch with friends" situation (see #4 above).

7. Lighten things up.
Keeping a humorous, lighthearted environment is the key to helping people relax. It will also make your participants feel more comfortable with advancing unique ideas. Start with a joke. Show a funny video that's loosely related to your topic--maybe a clip from The Office, for example. Play something from an old George Carlin record. Wear a goofy tie. There are dozens of ways to initiate and maintain a light atmosphere. Also make sure to have coffee, food and other refreshments. Keep spirits up and you will keep minds moving.

8. Have a reputation for recognizing success.
If you get good ideas from the session, be sure to publicly thank the group. If a particular individual contributed substantially, acknowledge this privately later on. Never bring up performance from a brainstorming session in an employee performance review--unless it is positive. People who are known for running effective, well-organized meetings and brainstorming sessions are more likely to get enthusiastic participation next time around.

9. Yes, there is such a thing as a "bad idea." One of my least favorite bits of conventional wisdom is that there is "no such thing as a bad idea." Crap. Most things generated in an effective brainstorming session are truly idiotic. And they should be. The goal in any brainstorming event should be quantity over quality.

You need to be clear that you want everybody to put ideas on the table but that only those that move you closest to your ultimate goal are likely to see the light of day. Ultimately, you are going to have to toss aside most ideas, but that's why you get the big bucks.

one of the best things I ever heard from a brainstorming facilitator was that in her last session the person who generated the “winning” idea was also the same person who came up with the worst. Now you might not get lightning to strike by setting up an environment like that, but the environmental conditions will certainly be right.

Another good article on the topic (with totally different takes):