The top two reasons why brainstorming sessions fail

When brainstorming fails, one of these reasons is usually why.  The good news? They are easy to fix.  

Reason #1:  Most teams don’t follow the directions.  

Think about this analogy. The following are directions for riding a bicycle.

    1. Grab the handlebars of the bicycle with both hands.
    2. Place your right leg over the top of the bicycle.
    3. Straddle the seat on the bicycle while keeping your left foot on the ground for stability.
    4. Push up on your left foot while pushing down on the right pedal with your right foot.
    5. Repeat.  

Do you really think you could learn to ride a bicycle by reading those directions?

That’s what many people think they can do with their team when it comes to being creative. Just read the brainstorming directions – voila! All of a sudden, the team produces a torrent of creative ideas. That’s just ridiculous!

In case you need a reminder of the brainstorming directions, here they are. 

    1. Defer judgment
    2. Strive for quantity
    3. Seek wild and unusual ideas
    4. Build on other ideas

Most of the time teams don’t follow the directions.  Many brainstorming sessions are mislabeled and are actually discussions or even worse, venting sessions. Following these simple, proven guidelines will help your team create breakthrough ideas.

But it takes more than just following the directions.  Just like improving any skill, brainstorming takes practice.

Reason #2: Most teams don’t practice 

Great football teams’ practice. Great symphony orchestras practice. Fire departments practice. They practice so that when they must perform at peak effectiveness under stressful conditions, they can execute extremely well.

When was the last time you “practiced” getting creative?  Try this. Before a brainstorming session, practice getting creative by warming up. Here’s how.

First, get a facilitator to manage the process. Review the guidelines for brainstorming ideas listed above. Present the problem to be solved as a creative question beginning with the words, “How to…?” 

Then, the group generates ideas following the brainstorming guidelines. As ideas surface, the facilitator records them on a flip chart, or the participants write ideas on sticky notes and hand them off to the facilitator, who places them on the flip chart.

During a warm-up session, give the group a time limit and a quota for the number of ideas generated. I recommend a quota of 25 ideas and a time limit of five minutes.

Most warm-up exercises are admittedly silly. They’re designed that way on purpose. Many of the ideas suggested will be absurd or impractical. That’s intentional. It is absolutely imperative that you do a short warm-up exercise BEFORE attempting to generate ideas on the “serious” problem. 

There is no judging when you are generating ideas so don’t let the silly factor deter you.

The purpose of a warm-up activity is to: 1. Briefly train the group in the brainstorming method; 2. “Sanction” the time for speculation.  The warm-up sends the message that the expected behavior of the group is to speculate and not judge. 3. Create a judgment free zone.

A few of my favorite warm-up questions: 

    • What might be all the ways to improve a refrigerator?
    • How to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub?
    • What might you do with 50,000 bowling balls that are flat on one side?

Use one of those, or make up your own! The key is to make it simple, and make it fun.

If you navigate around these two brainstorming pitfalls, you will significantly increase the effectiveness of your brainstorming sessions.  Not only will you generate more innovative ideas in a short period of time, your team will have fun doing it.

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. Roger is senior faculty at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State and president of Innovation Resources, Inc. He has written six books on innovation. His latest book, Create in A Flash:  A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation is available through Amazon or at Visit for more details.