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How to run a better creative brainstorm

Bob Robinson
How to run a better creative brainstorm Bob Robinson

Every company has them -- that meeting where the creative team is called together and put in a nondescript room that smells of bureaucracy. On the table sit several generic yellow pads of paper, 16 dried-up felt tip pens, and a plate of stale donuts left over from that month's obligatory birthday celebration.

The doors are then shut, and a seven-page brief of objectives, research, and marketing jargon is read out loud with about as much enthusiasm as a week-old obituary. The brief is then questioned, answered, and then questioned again. The most junior creative takes notes on the white board, and the slow, arduous journey of coming up with creative brilliance begins. Zzzzzz.

Let's face it: At least 50 percent of all brainstorms are a waste. People get hung up on what's not important -- like who's invited and who got left out, or why there aren't enough donuts. All the while, they slap down each and every idea with a "tried that once before, didn't work" or a "that'll never get past the big guy." It's enough to turn most brainstorms into drizzles of futility.

But because creatives inherently love to have their egos stroked in a public setting, brainstorms can actually be very effective -- if done correctly.

Everyone abhors the thought of their ideas (their babies) being shot down in front of others. It's like that dream we all have of going to the office and realizing you're naked. Not a good feeling. The trick around this problem is to use a process that promotes answering a defined objective, while still allowing for wacky, what-have-they-been-drinking thinking in a secure, non-judgmental environment.

Here's the simple secret: Break down the brainstorm into two distinct 30-minute meetings rather than just one.

The first meeting we'll call "the brainstorm circus." It's a numbers game really, designed to maximize the amount of out-of-the-box ideas. Give everyone the objective in one sentence. OK, two sentences if you have to, but no long explanation or complex briefs to get started. Then tell everyone that the goal is to come up with a minimum of 100 ideas in 30 minutes.

Throw out the first two ideas and make them as ridiculous as possible. For example, if the objective is to name the company's new HR health initiative, suggest names like the "hope is not a strategy" plan or the "funny you don't look sick" plan. The point is to make it as silly, strange, or implausible as possible.

Now no one in the room can feel goofy or stupid making a suggestion because you've set the bar very low. And let everyone know you have a small prize (maybe a $5 Starbucks card) for the person who throws out the wackiest idea. Call on people. Make them give ideas. And write every single idea on the white board, so everyone can see and keep track.

Stop anyone who tries to explain why an idea may not work with, "This is just a numbers game, so I need more ideas." No Wendy Whiners or Sam Seen-It-Befores! And don't forget to keep time. You need 50 ideas every 15 minutes, so the pace needs to be frantic. Remember, this is a circus and should feel like one.

The second meeting is held the next day. Let's call this one "counting the take." This is also a 30-minute meeting, but it is with a small group of select team leaders. Unlike the first meeting, this is anything but a circus. The purpose of this meeting is to filter all the ideas down to just the concepts that can work. Which ones can be done within budget, within the time frame allotted, and to meet the business requirements? Out of 100 ideas, there may only be two or three that are viable. Once the concepts are whittled down to a manageable number, they can be written, edited, and proofed before final presentation to the client or upper management.

By separating the brainstorm into two distinct meetings with two distinct objectives, you're getting the best of both worlds. The "brainstorm circus" meeting allows creatives to be free to do what they do best: contribute ideas that are untethered by conventional thinking and without fear of being judged. The "counting the take" meeting allows leaders to focus on ideas that meet business objectives and drive the business forward. The end result is creative thinking that challenges, as well as ideas that activate. And there isn't a stale donut in sight. 

Bob Robinson is the executive creative director at Rockfish Digital.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Obi-Wan Plunkett

2014, January 23

Bob rocks!!! Good suggestion Bob... =)