Five reasons you should NEVER brainstorm in a conference room.

A funny thing happens when we hold brainstorming in a conference room. It usually plays out like this… The person running the session arrives early and fires up a blank PowerPoint presentation ready to capture all the great ideas that are about to come. A couple people show up early and find the seat closest to the exit.

There’s whispering among the participants as they either search for the reason why they were invited to participate or complain that they have too much “real work” waiting on them back at their desk. While they wait, the entire room is sits facing the screen, staring at the blank PowerPoint… captivated by the bright light.

The leader of the session nervously adjusts the keyboard and mouse as the clock ticks past the scheduled start time of the meeting. After a deep breadth they confidently say “alright, let’s go ahead and get started.” A few minutes into the explanation of ground rules: “no dumb ideas, everyone has a voice, blah blah blah,” the last two people walk in causing the whole thing to reset.

Then the leader unceremoniously says, “ok, so let’s just start throwing out some ideas.” There’s an awkward silence and then someone finally throws out the first idea! The remainder of the session is dominated by one or two people. Someone finally gets the courage to throw out a wild idea, the whole room has a good laugh, and the person behind the keyboard nervously asks “ok, so should I write that one down?” More silence and then the room moves on to the next, more reasonable, idea.

The session ends with a couple slides worth of ‘great’ ideas. The group disbands. Weeks go by. One of the brainstormers thinks “I wonder what happened to all those ideas we captured that one time?”

“I wonder what happened to all those ideas we captured that one time?”

Brainstorming in conference rooms is broken. Here are 5 major reasons it’s a terrible idea to hold your next brainstorming session in a conference room.

It creates a bottleneck for capturing ideas

Linus Pauling famously said, “the best way to have a great idea is to have A LOT of ideas.” When we brainstorm in a conference room we will naturally try to jump straight into the digital domain and capture the ideas into a PowerPoint file, or Word document. This creates a HUGE bottleneck for capturing the most ideas possible. There’s only one entry point; however, the whole room of people are coming up with ideas. It’s like having a 4 lane highway suddenly neck down to a single lane. The most productive brainstorming sessions are ones where ideas can be thought and captured in a parallel manner.

It automatically filters out crazy ideas

The person behind the keyboard also has a lot of power in the brainstorming session. They are an unavoidable filter that can be difficult for “crazy” ideas to pass through. I call this the “keyboard filter.” When ideas have to pass through a keyboard, it gets real… And only the most logical and rational ideas will get through.

When crazy ideas aren’t recorded then “not-quite-as-crazy” ideas that could be inspired from the crazy ones are less likely to be dreamt up. So the results of conference room brainstorming are likely to be linear, evolutionary ideas. The exponential, revolutionary ideas just aren’t given the opportunity to flourish in the conference room.

It creates a social hierarchy

The formality of the conference room setting brainstorming is also an issue. We are all taught proper meeting etiquette and unfortunately this behavior snuffs our creativity and innovation. There’s also the issue of people dominating the discussion. Due to the serial nature of conference room brainstorming (see above), only one person will be talking at a time. If you’re someone like me, who tends to have a lot of creative ideas, but am also introverted, you’ll find it difficult to throw out your wildest ideas in this setting. 1. The whole room is listening to you. 2. It will immediately be judged of its worthiness to pass through the “keyboard filter.”

So the session will inevitably be dominated by one or two extrovert and confident folks who know how to “lead a meeting.” Only, this isn’t a meeting, it’s a brainstorming session.

It forces us to think in PowerPoint slides

This one goes hand in hand with the “keyboard filter.” When brainstorming sessions are recorded real-time into a digital form like a PowerPoint slide, the level of formality and polish becomes inexcusably too high. Have you ever been building a PowerPoint slide when the line you’re typing suddenly and without warning wraps down to the next line? Have you ever spent minutes adjusting font sizes, looking up synonyms, or completed re-wording the thought to make it fit more appropriately on the slide? Don’t worry, you’re not that crazy, we’ve all done it.

Now imagine those same mental gymnastics happening during a brainstorming session where we’re trying to capture as many ideas as possible. Like it or not this happens… All. The. Time. It can be difficult to notice at first, because it’s not like the whole room is critiquing the slide design. What usually happens is the person behind the keyboard carries this burden and while someone is throwing out the next idea, they’re busy back spacing and re-typing the previous idea… Making the idea bottle-neck even worse.

It’s just not as fun

Let’s face it, meetings suck. Nine times out of ten, they could have just been a email. But people get lonely, they need to feel important, and they want to look productive, so meetings fill our calendars. Most meetings are like elevator music… Totally unnecessary, but they thought you needed something to help pass the time while you’re here.

Most meetings are like elevator music… Totally unnecessary, but they thought you needed something to help pass the time while you’re here.

If meetings are like elevator music, brainstorming sessions should be like a rave. High energy, low inhibition and when it’s done, you’re not even sure what happened. I’ve never been in a conference room setting and thought to describe it with those words.

What to look for when scheduling your next brainstorming

Now that we’ve settled on the fact that conference rooms make terrible brainstorming environments, what should we look for when scheduling our next brainstorming session?

There are a few keys to make an environment more suitable for brainstorming…

  1. Avoid technology and overhead projectors… Instead grab lots of sharpies and post it notes.
  2. Avoid standard height seating… Instead look for bar height or very low seating.
  3. Avoid low ceilings… Instead get into an expansive space (#cathedraleffect… Google it!).
  4. Avoid pin drops and cricket chirps… Instead put on some high energy music that has few to no lyrical content.

With these simple techniques, you’ll be brainstorming like a pro!

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Hi, I’m Tommy. I moved around a lot as a kid, but I think made me pretty special. I don’t get too attached to things, because I never knew when we were going to move again. Today, I’m usually the one challenging why we still “do it this way.” I live with a self-imposed pressure to assimilate quickly, because it’s never fun being the “new kid.” Today, I’m good at hitting the ground running with each new assignment. And I am very observant of my environment, because I needed to find out who were the cool kids and who to avoid. Today, I’m able to connect dots others miss and use influence to lead teams and organizations. What’s your story?

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