“Everyone’s born creative; it just gets trained out of them!”
With this quote, Larry Stultz, advertising department chair at The Art Institute, started me on a year-long journey to find best practices in brainstorming. Through trial and error, discussions with top creative professionals and tracing the synthesis of the most creative campaigns, we at MSL Atlanta have developed 10 steps, tested by past and contemporary experts, to help guide you to breakthrough brainstorms.
1. Keep your Brief Brief
Even if you’ve been asked to come up with the best ideas for campaigns, events, story angles, digital assets and trade show stunts, stick to a few topics per brainstorm. Keep the focus narrow and the creative brief to one page.
Additionally, don’t restrict thinking with mentions of budget, and have the brief ready 2-3 days in advance. This will allow all participants to familiarize themselves with the goals of the session and accomplish the pre-brainstorm activities listed below.
2. Keep Score
Often in brainstorms we rely on gut instinct to determine which ideas we like best, without factoring in the idea’s specific advantages for the client. Next time, try to quantify client “wants” and “needs” and assign values up front. Some use a 60 point scorecard – 10 points for each of three “needs” and 10 for each of three “wants.”
“Sometimes the best ideas are so obvious, they may not immediately come across as breakthrough, but they meet an organization’s wants or needs, or both. The process defines what good looks like,” said Pat Smorch, Director of Sustainability of Georgia-Pacific Innovation Institute. “Too often, people will say ‘We tried that already,’ but just because something was dreamed up 2-3 years ago in a different environment doesn’t mean it’s not the ideal solution for the here and now.”
3. Pick your Team
Moms attend a children's clothing brand brainstorm
Selecting the right people for your brainstorm is essential to its success. In addition to a scribe who is separate from the moderator/organizer, four others to invite are The Outsider, someone representative of the audience being brainstormed; The Creative Catalyst, someone good at generating impromptu ideas and building on others’ ideas; The Subject Matter Expert – someone from an account service team or with a passion point relevant to subject at hand; and The Naysayer – activated in this role only during the evaluation stage to poke holes in and improve ideas. Don’t include more than 12 people, and have a clear reason for including everyone who was invited.
“The best collaborations are when everyone at the table is vulnerable,” Said Ethan Myerson, a professional photographer. “When we’re all equally exposed as geeks, there are no inhibitions and ideas can get nuts.”
4. Get Familiar
Could you draw a monkey if you’d never seen one before? Preliminary research is key to insight – visit stores, sites or locations prior to brainstorming to collect images, artifacts, materials and observations that can be relevant to the ideation process. If possible, talk with the target audience to gain insights and perspective.
“In advance, I like to familiarize myself with the client and industry. I love to skim headlines and Web sites to see what’s being written about particular topics,” said Barbie Pressly, founder and CEO of Edible Arrangements. “A good walk outside is sometimes helpful as the four walls of an office or conference room don’t always spur creativity.”
Melanie and Stephen meet to prebrainstorm
Going in cold to an hour-long brainstorm will, at best, produce 30 minutes of fully baked ideas. Have your group warm up with independent “mindstorming” to develop two to three independent ideas to bring with them to the full brainstorm group. These preliminary possibilities become the passport to entry into the heart of the brainstorm and get minds ready for new ideas.
“We will always begin with the finished product and ask ‘In an ideal world what would it look like in the end?’” said Jahmar Hannans, Manager of Guest Services at The Georgia Aquarium. “Then we proceed to move backward and determine, ‘What will it take to get there?’”
6. Set the Scene
Mornings are best, and Fridays are often a “great day to play,” but any day is good for a brainstorm. Use a big room or a wide open space to set the stage for boundless ideas. Bring artifacts representing the audience you’re targeting that can help decorate the space. Use food, mood music and toys ranging from stress balls to clay to crayons that can provide tactile stimulation and help people revert to childhood when ideas flow with reckless abandon.
“Have whiteboards, stickies, markers, smart people with zero inhibitions, lots of pacing room and people who are able to forget about the perfect solution and just focus on the problem,” said Adam Lerner, a user experience designer at Columbia University Film Department.
7. Break the Ice
People don’t stop thinking about their business because they’ve sat down at a brainstorm. Provide a clean mental slate with an icebreaker and help participants get to a fresh place to think about the subject. Successful icebreakers should typically last 10 minutes or longer and include conjuring up or drawing a favorite childhood memory or a visual of what a word or phrase means to each individual; a “word cloud” where participants draw a line with free association branches to other words; or a “force fit” displaying various images for group’s collective inspirations and first impulse ideas.
Another popular concept is “out of the blue,” in which each person writes an idea on a paper airplane then throws them around room, each person adds another word or phrase to the plane; do this several times and then share the “cargo” from the planes. We often pair off for “password” quiz show inspired games to get the juices flowing. The icebreaker should help get people in the right zone for the majority of the brainstorm.
8. Follow the Rules
“The best collaborations have involved, from the outset, some basic rules, the most basic being agreeing to disagree and to respect disagreement,” said Jody Tate, author of The Music and Art of Radiohead. “The other aspect of the best collaborations has been humor and the freedom of thought it tends to foster.”
Here are the Rules of the Brainstorm. It helps to state these out loud at the beginning of the brainstorm:
- There are no bad ideas in brainstorming
- Don’t judge other ideas, just build on them
- Brainstorm for quantity over quality
- Don’t be bound by costs or specific logistics of an idea at this stage
- No use of mobile phones or smartphones for the 60-90 minute duration of the brainstorm
- Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most elegant
9. Guide the Brainstorm
Pet lovers brainstorm for a national pet food brand
Once ideas begin to slow down, change the pace with these thought-provoking techniques:
Assumption smashing – brainstorming best ideas, then take certain elements away to see how they morph and change into new ideas
Serendipitous ideation – take three organizations unlike your own or your client’s and brainstorm from those perspectives (e.g., instead of brainstorming for an electronics retailer, imagine it’s a cosmetics company, a book publisher or a children’s charity)
Problem reversal – develop all the worst ideas you can possibly think of for a client then flip them to positive workable notions.
“Inspiration comes from connecting dots, free association and brainstorming without boundaries,” said creativity guru Andrew Dod. “All too often we get too focused on finding the idea instead of letting the idea find us.”
10. Harvest the Ideas
Brainstorms don’t end when everyone walks out of the room – leaders then need to harvest the ideas to present to the client. After taking 30 minutes to an hour to cool down from the brainstorm, return with notes typed for evaluation against the scorecard. This allows a “left brain” exercise after all the free thinking and gives the account team an opportunity to punch holes in good and bad ideas and further develop the best three to five of the lot. The scorecard you developed earlier should dictate what great ideas rise to the top.
For ideas that don’t meet your client’s specific needs, establish a centrally located “Island of Misfit Ideas” archive and encourage all brainstorm leaders to store creative plans there; many of the best ideas that one person doesn’t buy can be recycled as the springboard for another great idea.
These 10 steps should prepare you for a brainstorm that results in a supervisor or client-ready set of ideas, no matter how well-trained you and your participants may be.
Stephen Michael Brown is senior vice president of MSL Atlanta, where he works on accounts such as Coca-Cola, The Home Depot, InterfaceFLOR and McDonald’s. He can be followed on Twitter @StephenATL.