Brainstorming – Fun or frightening?

Even skilled brainstormers have trouble finding golden ideas in a fixed and short timeframe. But what if we stop looking for golden ideas – and start looking for clues instead?
Back to overview

It sounds engaging, creative, and even fun ­– brainstorming. It can bring value to almost any part of your business: campaigns, sales initiatives, employer engagement, product launches, customer events – you name it. But WHY is it that so many marketing and brand professionals struggle to really get this process to work out well? I’ve even met people who fear facilitating this exotic phenomenon.

In my opinion, brainstorming is, first and foremost, a business-critical activity. I get the potential stress factor. The fear of wasting busy colleagues’ time. What if we get stuck? What if the ideas turn out to be no more than average? Do I risk losing face? This is where many brainstorming how-to guides say: “Rest assured; you are going to do just fine.”

The following 6 brainstorming tips can help you and your colleagues find your golden ideas and ensure a trauma-free process

1. — Look for raw material

Stop looking for golden ideas – and start looking for clues instead. Unqualified thoughts, impulsive words, and doubtful sketches can be further developed, combined, and refined AFTER brainstorming. It’s often in theaftermath that we find shiny gold. So, what is the purpose of brainstorming? Let’s call it RAW MATERIAL.

You don’t go into a gold mine and unearth a perfectly fine wedding ring (unless you are super lucky…. and planning to get married soon) You seek, find, and extract the raw metal – and bring it back to your factory to fashion it. To refine it. To shape it. In my mind, brainstorming is a lot like gold mining.


2. — Embrace wasting your time

Set realistic expectations. When you invite the participants, let them in on the ‘raw material’ mission. It can take the pressure off both you and them – and in fact, boost the ability to think freely. Now, of course, it happens that the ‘one and only’ idea appears during the brainstorm. But often, it’s not the case, and THAT essentially conflicts with the ethos of modern work culture: you cannot waste time! Utilize this conflict from a positive perspective to break the ice when starting the actual brainstorming session. And do let people know that it is to be expected in creating a “I wonder where this is going…” feeling when leaving the session. A brainstorm should add new perspectives to everyday business, despite the outcome. This leads to the next point… the facilitator.


3. — You don’t have to be the one

A general perception is that a brainstorm consists of an initiator/host and participants. Then, if you are the host, you are also the facilitator (add that to the stress list). This is a common mistake. The facilitator can be anyone – and you should consider who it will be prior to the session.

A facilitator’s role is to orchestrate the session and guide people in and out of exercises, to get the most possible input onto the board. Added to this, the facilitator combines, translates, and co-develops all the input in the context of the problem statement. If no one in your team feels comfortable taking this role – consider inviting a professional facilitator.


4. — Keep the slides to yourself, please.

A thorough brief and background information are always key – at least to the core team making the problem statement. But when it comes to brainstorm sessions, think the other way around. Too much information not only takes up head space for the participants – but it also has the unfortunate effect of making participants automatically qualify or disqualify their input – because it conflicts with some part of the bigger context. In the worst case, information overload can reduce the number of ideas.

"Brainstorming is a lot like gold mining. You seek, find, and extract raw materials and shape them into business opportunities."
Michael Bechara Eg Executive Creative Director & Partner

5. — Invite a stranger

Now it’s time to execute the brainstorm. A good tip in regard to participants is to invite someone completely unknown to the task. Simply to add unbiased thinking to the occasion. It could be a colleague from another department. Make sure to set a least an hour for the session. The first 10 minutes (max) should be allocated to unfolding the problem statement. Then use 5 minutes to fill up a ‘parking lot’ board with all obvious ideas that come to mind. For the remaining time, send your participants off-piste. They need to follow a simple golden rule: “Saying ‘No’ is not allowed – use ‘Yes, and…’ instead.”

Also, dare to use brainstorming methods/exercises. If a method is not really working, then simply ‘cold freeze’ that and try out a new method. I strongly recommend looking into Ideo U’s 7 golden rules for brainstorming.

Make your problem statement simple – very simple:

“How do we make consulting engineers visit our trade show booth with a focus on sustainable solutions – and convert them into marketing qualified leads during the visit?”


“How do we get everybody’s attention at this trade show?”


6. — Follow-up is key to sharpening your brainstorm ideas

After your brainstorm, you will have a lot of raw material and inspiration on the boards.

Now, you must set up a follow-up session with one or two co-players in order to restart the brainstorm based on the raw material. In this session, you should become much more specific and qualify actual ideas against the complete task brief. Now you might think that I am going to tell you that after reading my brilliant advice, you are going to do just fine at your next brainstorm? But nope…


You now have some tools to lower your shoulders – to make the brainstorm with your colleagues a relaxed and positive experience. A wonderful waste of business-critical time.

And that just might take you to the million-dollar idea.