Brainstorm blunders and how to avoid them

Agency brainstorming sessions can be an invigorating experience that sparks creative fires. They can also be a mind-numbing waste of time. Rachel Quinlan reveals her tips to bringing back the benefits to brainstorming.

New, interesting and exciting ideas are the foundation of great communications activities and campaigns. Whether you’re sitting alone with your thoughts, bouncing ideas off a colleague or staring at a white board in a conference room, brainstorming for those golden ideas is one of the most crucial pieces of our day-to-day work in the industry.

Rachel Quinlan

I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the smartest and most creative minds in the industry, participating in brainstorms that left me inspired and motivated for days. However, those aren’t the sessions that I want to talk about.

What I’d like to discuss are the duds – which unfortunately, I’ve also been a part of on occasion. While the fundamental philosophy that there are ‘no dumb ideas’ holds true, it is possible to set yourself up for failure with some common mistakes. By examining some of the usual errors, we can hopefully all achieve successful brainstorm behaviour.

Common brainstorm blunders include:

Businessman and files

A brief that’s anything but

It’s important to provide participants with background information, but let’s face it, if the brief is more than a page, it’s unlikely that your colleagues will read it. I once had a colleague send a link to the entire shared client folder so that everyone could ‘peruse’ it before the brainstorm – needless to say; no one came prepared for that discussion.

When setting up the meeting, ask yourself what is absolutely essential for participants to know coming into the discussion and share a couple of clear, concise paragraphs at least the day before – bonus points for bullet points!

Note: if the topic is too complicated to boil down into a couple of paragraphs, consider taking a step back and narrowing down what you plan to discuss.

board room table from above -ThinkstockPhotos-480738768

Too many chiefs

Don’t invite only senior people to join the discussion, for a variety of reasons. First, a room full of senior-level colleagues could intimidate the few junior folks in the room, meaning less active participants in the discussion. On the flip-side, this mix could evoke a few eager beavers to try to impress by ruling the conversation. I’ve seen this go both ways, neither of which is pretty.

Separately, be mindful of peoples’ availability. I once had a Monday morning brainstorm meeting pushed and pushed until Friday afternoon rolled around and we still had not come together. In this situation, the majority of the participants were senior level and their dynamic and demanding schedules meant that we struggled to capture a quorum.

Before sending out your calendar invite, think specifically about the topic you’re preparing to discuss and consider the areas of interest and expertise of your colleagues (both in and outside of the workplace), rather than just their titles or level of industry experience.

Cold open

I once joined a brainstorm in which the moderator opened the discussion by saying, “Okay, what are your ideas?” This elicited a lot blank stares in the room.

While we’re all pressed for time and eager to get into the discussion, it’s important to warm up the group for creative thinking. This can involve anything from an icebreaker game to an improv exercise and doesn’t need to take more than five minutes. Also, before digging in, remember to restate the brief, as simply as possible, and remind everyone what they are there to achieve so that you can have a focused conversation.

Racing the clock

Speaking of feeling rushed, I’ve frequently been asked to join or host “a really quick brainstorm.” While there are certainly instances in which quick creative thinking can sprout ideas, recognise that the more people that you have involved in the discussion, the more time you’ll need.

A former boss of mine, whom went on to establish his own creative agency, had a 60 minute minimum rule of thumb for brainstorms. With a full hour on the books, you should have enough time to warm up, introduce the brief and explore every avenue, including those that lead you slightly off topic.

Also, asking your participants to commit a full hour gives them a better opportunity to mentally settle in and focus for the duration of the conversation, rather than having their mind wander into the next block on their calendars.

office round table brain storming


While we’re talking about crowded calendars, take a moment to think about all of the things in your diary right now. Head spinning a bit? With a myriad of invites in your inbox, it’s easy to overlook a calendar invite that falls flat.

Think about how you can inspire and perhaps challenge your participants so that they are encouraged to join the brainstorm, especially if the topic you’re covering doesn’t naturally illicit a ton of excitement.

A quick brainteaser to kick off the invite could excite the mind. Even a clever title or an air of mystery could help separate your meeting from the pack. And if all else fails, promise snacks! That one gets me every time…

Wearing your (client) hat indoors

Finally, a common and perhaps controversial mistake that I’ve seen all too often is settling too deeply into the mindset of your client while generating ideas.

I worked on a major retail brand for over three years, and I absolutely loved the client, but towards the end of my tenure on the account, I caught myself saying “they’ll never go for that” far too often, which is how I knew that it was time to move on.

While this example focuses on the agency side, this blunder holds true for anyone who has been involved with a company or project long-term. Of course it’s important that we’re aware of the larger brand truths and that we have an understanding of what has and hasn’t worked in the past, but we have to leave that type of scrutiny for the post-brainstorm analysis phase, rather than letting it crush creativity.

These simple brainstorming mistakes can lead to a painful, fruitless experience and ultimately, a waste of everyone’s time. Luckily, shining a light on the mistakes makes them easy to avoid.

I like to think that creative thinking is an art, but brainstorming is a science. Follow the proper formula and avoid the common pitfalls and you’re much more likely to end up with useful results.

Rachel Quinlan is a senior account manager at Weber Shandwick


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