How To Kill The Crickets That Poison Group Brainstorms

An easy fix for a universal problem.

Group brainstorms are flat-out broken. A frustrating fact considering creative professionals live and die by the ideas they conjure from thin air.

You probably dream of the day when your conference room finally crackles with brainstorming spark. Fearless and free, your team shouts brilliant ideas faster than you can write them all down.

I have some bad news.

That conference room dream of yours might never happen. See, brainstorming attendees aren’t human. They were human once, but the moment they set foot in the room, they transformed into:

Crickets

These poor people are terrified. During the brainstorm, they often have at least once brilliant idea on the tip of their tongues, but the fear of saying something embarrassing makes them squelch it.

Road Trippers

Other people on your team find a seat in the conference room, immediately enable cruise control, and kick up their feet. Not a care in the world. They’re content to coast and let colleagues do the heavy lifting.

Megaphones

Often, the person with the best job title or loudest voice swings the outcome of the brainstorm. Isn’t collaboration fun?

But wait! I have good news, too.

Brainstorming works. We’ve just been doing it wrong.

Buckle up, my friend. You’re about to learn how to do it right.

Note: I am a copywriter by trade and am thus approaching this guide from a writing perspective. But it works for any kind of idea generation.

Why brainstorming is broken.

Time for a quick history lesson.

Oh, for crying out loud. It’s quick and interesting, you whiner. Sit. Brainstorming as we know it was invented by Alex Osborn, co-founder of BBDO. He wrote a book in 1942 that presented the technique.

Problem is, Alex Osborn was a bonafide “Mad Man” who passed away over 50 years ago. In that time, the way we generate ideas has changed just a teensy-weensy bit.

Write this down.

How you work should be how you brainstorm.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do my job without my computer staring back at me. When I’m thrown into a group brainstorm, do you know what’s missing every time?

DING DING DING. That beautiful backlit monitor of mine. Taking away my computer, sitting me in a room, and asking me to be creative is a lot like telling a homebuilder to get to work without a tool belt. It will not end well.

Get out of that conference room and brainstorm digitally.

Let’s say you’re a copywriter. My apologies, by the way. You’re tasked with creating new banner ads for a subscription home maintenance service. Kind of like Angie’s List.

First, grab a couple colleagues and sit down together. With your computers. Open a collaborative document and start ping-ponging ideas off each other. You’ll be amazed by how quickly you generate ideas with this method.

Spoiler: This banner ad example is an actual project I tackled with a colleague (hi, jdot!) a couple years ago. The following batch of word vomit is a list of headlines we came up with after just 20 minutes in a Google Doc.

Not handy? Get help.
More of a footy? Get help hiring a handy. (GOOD GOD NO)
Not handy, man? Find a handyman.
We can’t all be handy. But we can all find someone who is.
Membership for one year. On the house.
One year membership. It’s yours. On the house.
Go from DIY to “I know a guy.” (YESSSSSS)
When DIY goes WRONG, find some help.
When the thought of DIY makes you LOL, get help.
DIY? More like Y Did I Try?
When DIY becomes OMG, we say NP.
More like DI Why.

Are they all winners? Of course not. Is at least one of them a winner? You bet your MacBook it is.

Okay, NOW you can get in the conference room.

Once you’ve held your digital brainstorm and are happy with the results, it’s time to present to the rest of the team. With work already on the wall, everyone in the room will breathe a sigh of relief and easily suggest ways to improve upon it.

Brainstorming is not broken.

We are creative and collaborative. It’s a beautiful thing.

But life isn’t Mad Men. The way we work is totally different than it was in the 60s.

So rather than copy the way your creative forefathers worked, you should use their methods as a foundation, then build upon them with the miraculous tools at your disposal. You know, the ones you’re already intimately familiar with.

That’s the path to a brainstorm that works for you and your team. Good luck, and have lots of fun.

Bonus: 5 rapid-fire digital brainstorming tips.

  • This is playtime, not judgment time.
  • Embrace the failures, because there will be a lot of them.
  • Don’t delete anything. Not yet, anyway. We want quantity over quality.
  • Take bad ideas and make them good. Take good ideas and make them great.
  • Focus on one topic at a time and devote 20 uninterrupted minutes to it. Then move on and come back to it later.