How do you feel when you hear the word ‘brainstorming’?
Do you get excited and rub your hands together—ready to make some progress on the noble work of thinking through problems? Or do you cringe—thinking of tense or difficult work that leaves you feeling anxious, drained, and at a loss?
Many people fall more into the latter camp—having at least a slightly negative association in their minds about brainstorming. And that’s understandable. Whether it’s on your own or collaborating with others, coming up with ideas on demand is difficult work. If done incorrectly, it can be frustrating, and even counterproductive—especially if a team is involved.
But there’s hope. If you avoid some of the most harmful pitfalls of the brainstorming process, and embrace some of the more helpful habits and mindsets—you can flip the script. You can turn brainstorming into the kind of word that gets you excited to hear—rather than making you feel like putting up your ‘out of office’ notification.
Below is a list of helpful do’s and don’ts for effective brainstorming. They’re structured to be applicable for both solo brainstorming or working in a team setting.
DON’T Get Attached to Your Ideas
When teachers of mindfulness instruct new students, one of the first things they teach is that you are not the contents of your mind. Your identity and self-worth is not based on the emotions or thoughts running through your mind at any given time. It’s similar to the idea that the Autobahn and Route 66 are not identical to the cars riding on them. You’re the road, not the cars riding through it.
In the same way, you are not the ideas you offer up in a brainstorming session. You need to embrace that, and get others in a brainstorming meeting to embrace that as well. Brainstorming is not about proving how good you are at offering up polished, implementation-ready ideas.
Brainstorming is an iterative process. Ideas build off of one another. One early half-baked idea gets the mind thinking of something kind of related. That brings up a few other related ideas, and so on. Eventually, you have a list of ideas that get progressively more interesting, and more ready to be refined.
But none of that happens if you hold back because you’re afraid of being identified with your ideas. Put the ego aside, and remember that you are not any of your crazy ideas. You’re just the place where they rent space—until you forget them.
DO Aim For Crappy Ideas
Writer Anne Lamott is famous for talking, in her book Bird by Bird, about “shitty first drafts”. The concept is basically that early in the creative process, momentum is important—even more important than quality. In fact, the earlier you are in the creative process, the less important quality is. For Lamott, this meant that a writer should aim for their first draft to be bad—but at least be a draft!
Brainstorming is about as early in the creative process as it gets, so keep your first crack at things—as Lamott advises—shitty. What I’ve found helpful is to not even do it by accident, but rather, intentionally come up with some bad ideas at the beginning of your session. As long as the ideas are related to what you’re brainstorming about, but keep them bad.
This approach does two things. First, it eliminates the classic barrier to entry in brainstorming, which is the fear of a bad idea. If the expectation is to come up with bad ideas first, then the pressure is off. Just go wild. In meetings, this also helps break the ice, often by making people laugh at how bad the ideas are.
Secondly, starting with bad ideas creates momentum in your brain. You begin to make associations. You see what’s bad about the bad first ideas, and it gets you thinking in a more constructive mode. You begin to make connections because there’s fertile ground already there. And none of those ideas are ones anyone will be offended about when another idea makes it obsolete.
DO Go for Quantity Over Quality (At Least To Start)
When it comes to creativity, you could do a lot worse than reading James Altucher. He writes…a lot, and he writes a lot about how to work with ideas. He draws an interesting parallel between our “idea muscle” and literal muscles.
How long does it take this muscle to atrophy? The same as any other muscle in your body: just two weeks without having any ideas. Atrophied.
If you lie down in a bed for two weeks and don’t move your legs you will need physical therapy to walk again.
And much like building literal muscles, you can’t just stay in your cognitive comfort zone for long. You need to push your mind further. Push out more reps—so to speak. And the brainstorming version of reps is coming up with ideas. More and more ideas.
Altucher recommends going for 10 ideas as a start:
Somewhere around idea number six, your brain starts to sweat. This means it’s building up. Break through this. Come up with ten ideas….if you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20 ideas.
Is that facetious? A little bit. But the spirit of it is real. When it comes to ideation, quantity is the name of the game—at least at first. Quality can come afterward—once you’ve got way more ideas than you ever thought you could come up with.
What a great segue into the next piece of advice…
DON’T Mix Ideation with Evaluation
Of the many brainstorming sessions I’ve been a part of, what most of the unproductive ones have had in common is they mixed 2 things that should be separate: ideation and evaluation. Those two parts of the process must be separated because they involve different mindsets. One is creative, the other is critical. The latter stifles the former—every time.
Ideation is the process of coming up with ideas. It’s what James Altucher was referring to in his quotes from the previous section. Just come up with ideas—be they good, bad, ugly, or crazy. And the more ideas you come up with, the better.
So keep that going. Don’t interrupt it with an evaluation of whether the ideas are good or not. If you’re on your own, all that will do is kill your flow. In a team setting, it will make other people scared to offer up ideas—for fear of judgment.
Come up with ideas first—many of them. Only after you’re done, should you go and evaluate them.
Do Encourage Non-Linear Thinking
Why do we brainstorm? We’re trying to solve a problem. The problem may be that the company isn’t profitable enough or that you’re a creator who needs to be creating something, but currently isn’t. Either way, the brainstorming is supposed to produce ideas that solve that problem. The way to do that is not to pigeon-hole yourself into only a few solutions. The way to avoid this is to move away from accepted starting points and linear thinking.
Writer Chuck Slamp gives a great example of what happens when we stay rigid and linear in our problem-solving:
There’s a danger in relying too heavily on logic. The danger is in the determination of the starting point. Once a starting point is chosen, there are a limited number of logical conclusions to any given problem. For example, imagine a store owner who believes that he must raise his revenues to increase his profits. He tries multiple methods including advertising, increasing inventory, and product bundling to bring in more customers and increase sales. But he forgot that he could also reduce his costs to increase profits, and in doing so missed what might have been much less expensive, less demanding options.
Be careful not to paint you or your team into a narrow track of thought. Allow for off-the wall ideas. Go wide and non-linear in your thinking. Here are some brief tips on how to do that:
- For anyone who says “that won’t work”, ask them “why?” And ask it again after each explanation up to 5 times. Record the answers.
- Ask “how might we?” questions—which force you to think outside of your current constraints.
- Think of something supposedly unrelated to your topic, and see if you can get it to relate to the topic. That cognitive journey helps prime your mind to think in a less linear fashion.
- Begin the session with some brain-teasers or riddles, to get you thinking differently.
A Concluding Cheat Sheet
Brainstorming is much like a very sharp, very heavy sword. If you know how to use it well, it’s a very valuable, trusty weapon. If you don’t know how to use it well, it’ll do more harm than good—and you’ll never want to be involved with anything like it again. To get better at wielding that weapon, here are the 5 Tips:
- DON’T get attached to your ideas
- DO encourage a bunch of crappy first ideas
- DO go for quantity over quality
- DON’T mix ideation with evaluation
- DO encourage non-linear thinking
Now, get your pen and paper ready, and get out there and brainstorm.
Here’s a handy infographic to help you keep these in mind.