Why Brainstorming Often Fails


Are you making the right kind of “splash”
with your brainstorming technique?

We suspect you have seen poor brainstorming technique by people not trained.  Typically here is how brainstorming goes:

  • The meeting person says: “We have problem x. What can we do to solve it?”
  • They write down as many ideas as they can get from whomever has an answer on a flipchart or whiteboard.
  • Their writing is not legible or visible to everyone in the room.
  • They thank everyone for their ideas.
  • The end product is a number of flipchart sheets hanging around the room.

Danger!!!  We hope you have never experienced this bad a session but we are reluctant to say we have seen it many times. Please do not be “guilty” of this frantic, competitive, unbalanced type of brainstorming technique.

What Meetings Leaders Fail to Do

  • They do not have the right balance of experience and knowledge in the room
  • They do not acknowledge the power dynamics of participants
  • They do not recognize different styles of participating and taking in information
  • They do not provide a clear focus; everyone may not understand and agree to the problem
  • They do not tell people why they are spending time on this topic
  • They do not give enough silent thinking time for each individual prior to sharing ideas out loud
  • Not everybody gets to share their ideas

Here are our top tips to improve brainstorming technique:

Tip 1: Give clear focus and instructions.

Decide what is the question you want addressed and test this question out on several participants.  Write out your instructions for brainstorming so everyone can see them.

Tip 2: Set the stage for creative brainstorming

People need warm up time to come up with their best ideas. It is always good to have some kind of creative activity to get the juices flowing.

Tip 3: Follow this sequence: Individual – Small group – Whole group

Always give people individual uninterrupted time to come up with their own draft list of answers. Then they can share it in dyads or triads. Finally, they can share the small group’s best ideas with the whole group.

Source: Adapted from a handout written for the 5 Elements of Facilitation Design course by Barbara MacKay, Eunice Shankland and Mari Mizobe Chu.

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Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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