Even for “creatives,” brainstorming sessions, when not handled well, can be daunting and gut-wrenching. In this article, we'll break down what makes a brainstorming session so daunting for some and then offer suggestions on making one of these creative thinking exercises for teams more productive and, dare we say, enjoyable.
This happens quite often; the boss or group leader puts a “brainstorming session” on the weekly calendar, sometimes even with the notation “bring your ideas,” and immediately, the panic sets in. Your palms sweat, your mind races, and you contemplate faking your own death because that would be more appealing than sitting in a room with your co-workers, enduring that stifling silence when your boss paces the room and flips a dry erase marker, occasionally tapping a whiteboard and saying, “come on people, what have you got?”
Even for “creatives,” brainstorming sessions, when not handled well, can be daunting and gut-wrenching. Think about this, the definition of brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.
Or, as we all know them, sitting in a room numb and sweating, praying for the hour to be done.
While some people do well in brainstorming sessions, they are exercises in mental torture and fear for most of us.
In this article, we'll break down what makes a brainstorming session so daunting for some and then offer suggestions on making one of these creative thinking exercises for teams more productive and, dare we say, enjoyable.
One of the main stumbling blocks people have when they go into a brainstorming session is the idea that they have to get THE answer. And in their minds, that usually translates to the RIGHT answer.
These sessions become problematic when people cannot find the correct answer or are just praying the right answer will happen so the whole thing can stop. That just creates a spiral of fear, and then no one can come up with any ideas at all.
Thinking Skills And Creativity Rules
One of the most challenging hurdles anyone who is delving into creativity comes up against is the fact that creativity has no rules.
People who engage in brainstorming exercises to help develop their creativity don’t believe it when you say there are no rules. It’s a bizarre but true phenomenon.
If you get a group together to brainstorm, they will sit quietly and maybe now and then throw out an idea. Someone may throw out something completely outrageous, everyone will laugh, and the leader will put that idea on the board; when that happens, someone will inevitably question it. “You’re going to put that on the board?” they’ll ask, “But that’s silly.” If you say, that’s okay; silly is okay, every idea goes on the board, they will respond, “I didn’t know we could do that.” Even if you follow up with, “we said every idea is valid,” they will still be lost.
You have to understand that rules govern our lives. We’re not talking about laws, those exist, but rules run our lives. What time you show up for work, where you clock your time, when and where you take your break, what is the chain of command, etc. We have rules in our house about mealtimes, playtimes, TV times, and on and on.
Rules actually give us comfort; they give us boundaries and schedules, so we know what to do and when. When you tell someone who has lived with rules their whole life, okay, there are no rules; they don’t believe it, and they have no idea how to act. Despite protestations to the contrary, people like rules, rules are safety and comfort.
People love the rule-breakers; seriously, how many movies have you seen that tell the story of a guy who follows all the rules, and then he keeps following them, and things turn out fine, and he lives an acceptable and everyday life? Exactly zero. We want movies about the people who shed the rules and have adventures. But, when it comes to their lives, they take solace in the rules and are quietly thankful for them.
When you set up an exercise to help with creativity, and someone says, “I didn’t know we could do that,” or even “we can do that?” What you’re hearing is someone who has imposed rules on the situation in their mind. They don’t even know they did it; it's a reflex. They have imposed rules because they cannot believe there is a place where there are no rules, and if there are no rules, there is a whole lot of risk involved.
There is no creativity without risk. That should be repeated; there is no creativity without risk.
To be clear, this is not the same kind of risk as jumping out of an airplane or skiing down the Austrian Harakiri slope. In either of these cases, you could get injured. But bodily injury is a different kind of risk than mental injury.
When someone undertakes a creative endeavor, in order to do it well, they put themselves into it. They say to the world; this is me, this canvas, this dance, this play, this song is me. And, when the world judges it, they are also judging the creator.
People don’t want to heat up the wrong foods in the microwave at work for fear of being judged; imagine the courage it takes to put something creative before the world, knowing full well that people will line up to judge it and the creator.
But, if you don’t put yourself into the work, expose your soul and allow people to see the truth in you, then what you’re producing is not real; it is a vague simulacrum of what creativity could be. It falls short, and no one gains from it.
Real creativity requires your complete self, and that is a considerable risk.
Creativity Takes Practice
Knowing this about the creative process, what it costs and how risky it is, it only makes sense that there needs to be some prep time, some introduction to a creative endeavor like a brainstorming session.
Think about this, would you ask your team, on Friday afternoon, to be ready to run the New York City Marathon the following day? Of course not; that would be equal parts insanity and danger. Someone could get hurt, or someone could die. Running a marathon takes time and training; to think otherwise is not to understand what it takes to undertake such a feat.
Most people do not see themselves as creative and do not consciously exercise creativity on a daily basis. So, when you put a brainstorming session on the calendar, you’re basically saying, hey gang, after lunch tomorrow, we’ll be running twenty-six miles.
If you want to get anything out of a brainstorming session, you’ve got to do the prep work. You’ve got to introduce the idea of creative freedom, no judgment, open acceptance to all ideas, and the flow of ideas to your group beforehand. You’ve got to train for a 2K before you can run the marathon.
Creative Prep Time
Creativity isn’t a switch that can just be flicked on and off. The idea of one day asking your team to be creative, using a muscle that may have been dormant for a long time, is counterproductive.
Ease your team into it. Set up two hours a week, two different days, to get together and play. Yes, play. See, at some point, we’re all told to act our age, and at that moment, the idea of play goes out the window.
Creative play is different from sports. Sports have rules and guidelines, whereas creative play is simply that, play for the sake of play. Remember being a kid and having a big bag of green plastic army men. That was dawn to dusk, your mom screaming your name into the neighborhood to come home for dinner. No rules, no guidelines, just you and your imagination creating scenarios, making sounds, screaming horrible deaths. Play.
Creative Brainstorming Activities, Games, and Exercises
Obviously, you cannot get your team in a room and just shout, BE CREATIVE; they’ll clam up like, well, clams. So, the best way to get the group moving and working is to play games as we did as kids. Here are a few games that you can play in your twice-weekly, one-hour session to help the team get on the same page and get the creative muscles ready for action. These games have limited rules, more like guidelines to keep them moving, and will allow your team to slowly get the creative juices flowing.
Once the creative muscles have been engaged, the weekly sessions will be used to keep them active and in shape. Then, down the line, when a brainstorming session is called for, your team will be ready and free to contribute openly.
These games are designed to get people to understand a few things;
- They will always have things in their head to say.
- There are no wrong answers.
- Having no rules is freedom.
- Trust yourself.
This is a simple game and a great place to start.
This is an interview-type situation. One person is the undisputed expert on everything in the world. They are asked questions by the rest of the group, and the expert answers.
This game is excellent for a few reasons. First off, it will allow your team to see that they impose rules on themselves. What they can and cannot say, how they get in their own creative way by saying I don’t know anything about that or trying to find “the right” answers.
The rule is the person is THE UNDISPUTED EXPERT ON EVERYTHING. So, there is no question about the answers being right or wrong. What the expert says is the answer. The people asking the questions are not there to trip the expert up or make them fail; they are in a room with the person who knows everything about everything, and they should ask questions in that vein, to be enlightened.
What to Watch for as The Expert
As the expert, you want a free flow of information. There is no need to worry, doubt, or wonder if anyone will question your answers; they won’t. The rules are clear; you are the expert on everything, so you know everything.
When answering questions, be aware of buying time, filling your answers with ums or ahs. Those are little tricks we use to give ourselves more time. In that more time, what we’re doing is seeking the “right” answer. But, since you are the expert on everything, whatever answer you give is the right answer.
What to Watch as the Interviewers
This is not a competition. No one is better or worse at this. Just be present and be aware. Are you asking questions to trip the expert up? Are you secretly trying to sabotage them so that when you’re the expert, you “look better?”
Most importantly, are you present and listening? Are you listening to the expert, or are you thinking about how you’d answer the question better, funnier? One of the keys to good creative collaboration is listening to each other. If in your head, you’re playing out your time as the expert, you’re not present, you’re not listening, and you’re not supporting.
What to Observe Over Time
The more you play, the easier this becomes. Over time, be aware of how much quicker your answers become. How much you trust that there is something in your head at all times, that there are no wrong answers, and that being creative does take practice, but you can do it.
This game addresses a couple of factors. First, when in a brainstorming session, we often don’t go far enough; we are afraid to be out there. We impose on ourselves boundaries such as I can’t say that, people will think I’m strange or even, well someone said my thought I have nothing left. Just not true. This game addresses those issues and helps your team overcome them.
Another issue this game works on is something from nothing. In brainstorming, sometimes we get caught up in the idea that we have nothing to contribute; this game shows us that even the most banal impulse can lead to a flood of creativity.
Lastly, this game helps us accept and give offers, which we will explain right now.
This is an offer and accept game. In life, we get offers every single day, and most times, we don’t recognize them, or we just don’t think they are worth commenting on. However, commenting, acknowledging the offers can lead to great creativity.
The game is two people; one starts by making an offer, a simple, seemingly banal offer, the other person over-accepts the offer. Meaning they take it to the outer limits of acceptance. The game is called It’s Tuesday, and that may be the best place to start. Here’s an example:
A: It’s Tuesday.
B: (Over accepts) Tuesday, no, no, not possible. I am missing a day, where did I put that other day? Tuesday is the day I was going to donate my heart to the guy on the corner who runs the burrito cart. He only needs it for a week just to perfect his Asada burrito, then he’ll give it back, but I needed to to prep, call a nurse, eat the right foods and get someone to take care of my dog. Now I won’t be able to give him my heart, he’ll never make the perfect Asada burrito, he will lose his business and all will be lost.
(Please note that was written in one breath, no editing, and it was just fingers to the keys. In the game, it’s just hear the offer and over accept.)
Once B has done their over acceptance, they make a banal offer to A;
B; By the way, I like your tie.
At which point, A over accepts and then makes another offer. And so it goes til the person running the sessions says stop.
What to Watch for as A & B
The main thing is to listen, listen to the other person on their over accepting rant. Do not be thinking of fun or funny things you’ll say; stay with your partner and truly listen.
As the over accepting person, are you taking it far enough? Are you imposing rules of things you cannot say or ideas that are too gross or unacceptable? Are you worried that you’ll be judged? Are you imposing rules and boundaries on your partner subconsciously?
Accept the offer as given. When your partner offers you a banal statement, are you accepting it fully, or do you say no. Do you accept their offer, or do you twist it to make it work with funny ideas you already had while they were talking? Being present and listening, accepting the offer as is and running with it are keys to this game.
What to Observe Over Time
Over time you’ll see how quickly you accept the offer and how far you can take it. You’ll learn that you will never run dry, and, even if you do, that can become part of the acceptance. Why not? There are no rules, only the ones you impose on yourself.
You’ll also observe that you will move past a period of just letting words come out, where you’re confident that the words will never dry up, and you’ll be able to weave the over acceptance into a good, clear story without even thinking about it.
Also, over time, you will begin to incorporate your partner into your over-acceptance. Whereas when you started, you were alone in your rant, you’ll feel safe to move out of yourself and pull them into the situation as well.
Most importantly, you will observe how much more you trust yourself, your mind, and the endless fountain of ideas that are naturally in your head.
This game works on listening skills, teamwork, and clarity of narrative. And, it's fun as hell.
Five people, four storytellers, and one conductor. The storytellers stand close together facing the conductor, and they tell a story. The conductor points to one person who begins telling the story; as soon as the conductor points to another person, that person takes up the story and starts telling it until the conductor points to someone else.
If you’re not listening to the story, it becomes evident rather quickly, and the whole thing falls apart.
Listening means not deciding you don’t like the way the story is going and sending it off in another direction just because. Listening means you’re trying to create, with your team, a narrative that is clear and easy to follow by the listeners. Listening means you’re trying to hear a beginning, middle, and end. Listening means you’re present for your team.
What to Watch for as a Storyteller
Simple, are you listening? Are you hearing all parts of the story before the conductor points to you? Are you in your head, worrying that you won’t do it right or sound funny? Are you present, supportive, and listening.
Also, are you advancing the story, moving it forward toward a conclusion, or are you just adding things that you think will be funny? Are you being a good team member, or are you just looking to stand out and be seen as “the best?”
What to Watch for as the Conductor
As the conductor, you lead the story, and your team counts on you for direction. You have to be listening as well. And you have to be present in the moment.
Are you with your team, or are you subtly judging? Are you giving everyone a chance to add to the story, or are you subconsciously thinking, well, Dave isn’t doing well, I’ll avoid him. Why? So you’ll win? There is no winning, and you live and die as a team.
You need to keep the story moving at a good pace, give everyone a chance to tell part of the story, and know when to wrap it up. Again, you have to listen.
What to Observe Over Time
Over time, you’re going to see that you understand story structure better, you’ll be able to pick up subtle hints from your teammates as to where the story is going, you’ll be able to tell more in-depth stories, and you will listen so much better.
As a conductor, you’ll learn that you can cut someone off mid-word, and the next person will pick up that word. You can start to relax and have fun with this game.
Your teams will get tighter, faster and the stories will be more wild and creative the more you play.
Working Towards a Perfect Brainstorm
This is just a start. These three games will cover hang-ups we all face when trying to be creative. They will give you and your team a common vocabulary and a closer connection. They will dispel the worries about being right and running out of words to say. They will unite you, get the creative muscles engaged and be valuable ways to start a brainstorming session.
For more games and ideas, I cannot recommend enough the book Impro, by Keith Johnstone.
Now, we could end here, which is usually acceptable; here are some games, play them, and now, a brainstorming session. But, that creates a disconnect. Your team now needs a connection between the twice-weekly, one-hour creative workout and the brainstorming session.
The problem is, when activating the creative mind, people unfamiliar with the process will naturally create a separation. Those games were fun; we got to play, now we have to work. As a team leader, it falls to you to never allow for that disconnect and to guide your team from game to brainstorm.
Much like the shock a person will feel when you say there are no rules, they'll experience the same doubt or distrust when you say the games and the brainstorm are the same, no rules, just fun.
Melding the Two
When you start the process of games to brainstorm, keep it one for one. Use the game directly in the brainstorming session.
Whatever the final goal of the brainstorming, make it part of the game. If the brainstorming is about getting the company seen on social media, play expert. One person is the undisputed expert on social media. The others ask questions about anything related or seemingly unrelated to social media. The expert just talks; they play the game as before, only this time, instead of animal husbandry, they answer questions about one topic.
As the expert shares their expertise, someone writes every word down on the dry erase board—no judgment, no editing, just writing the wonderful information the expert has given.
Allow a few people to be the expert and write down all the ideas.
Take a subject and play It’s Tuesday with it. How far can you go with the subject? How many boundaries can you break? Play that game with the brainstorming topic in the back of your mind and write it down on the board.
Do a story story about the topic. Tell the story of what you’re looking to brainstorm and write it down.
The importance here, at the start, is to show your team that there is no disconnection from playing the games and having a brainstorming session. The same lack of rules, anything goes, be as out there as possible that you introduced in the games can now be used in the brainstorming session.
Over time, you can start sessions with a game or, if you’re getting bogged down in a brainstorming session, you can say, let’s expert this or let's story story this. Your team will get it, and now you have a valuable tool to unblock, open their minds and fill them with the confidence of creativity.
Back to Risk for a Moment
This work is enlightening, freeing, and immeasurably valuable for a creative or any team. However, it’s going to be useless if all team members do not commit to risking, to laying themselves out there to making fools of themselves and laughing together. Without risk, this is just a series of pointless, time-consuming exercises that people just want to be over.
As a leader, your job is to make sure the room is safe, Make certain judgment is left at the door, fear is assuaged, and the space is sacred, a place to fail big and keep failing big every time. Failure is a beginning and not an end. Create a trusting space, a safe space, a welcoming space and have patience; this will take a little time.
The Brainstorming Session
Now you’re ready. Now you’ve given your team tools and a common vocabulary. You’ve shown them that they all have that creative spark in them. You have helped them access that and work the muscles, so you're not just saying wake up tomorrow and run a marathon, you’ve trained them, and now, they are ready.
As for the brainstorming session itself, they have tools now; here are a few rules.
At the start, everything goes on the board. Never say no. Never. And not just the word no, all forms of no. which include:
- I don’t think that fits.
- We could find something better.
- I don’t like the way that sounds.
- Maybe we should try something else.
- I don’t like it.
Never push anyone. Again, creativity isn’t a switch, and some days, the ideas may not be there. So saying things like “Dana, we haven’t heard from you today.” puts someone on the spot and changes the rules. Now we’ve gone from let’s just play and put stuff on the board to every single person must say something useful. The anxiety goes up, the flow stops, and now we’re hard at work again.
Do not praise or applaud. Sounds weird, right? But, once you applaud or say that’s a great idea, you’ve introduced competition and judgment. Inevitably someone will think, Well, Tom got really long applause for his idea, and only Cathy clapped for me. Competition and the killing of free-flowing ideas.
Save your praise for after the sessions and make it inclusive. Everyone who was involved was involved and bringing it to the table. Recognizing good work is essential, and there’s a way to do that.
The Compliment Circle
This is how to end the session.
Everyone stands in a circle, holding hands, ew gross, get over it. The leader thanks everyone, tells them they did a great job, shares how much they appreciate everyone’s hard work and dedication to the process, and then, they open it up like this:
“Is there anyone you’d like to compliment? Please be specific and tell that person what you admired about their work that day.”
Allow this to happen, and if no one says anything, the leader picks it back up, says everyone was tremendous, and moves on.
If someone wants to give a compliment, they have to be specific; that’s part of the creative process, specificity. If they say, Dave, you did well today. As the leader, ask the person to be more specific about what Dave did that was good.
Forcing specificity does not constrain; it focuses. If you have the impulse to say, that was good; there is more behind that which prompted you to say it was good. Get to the heart of it, help your team get specific all the time. Eventually, it becomes a reflex, and you’ll see it in the games and the brainstorming session. Over time everyone will be more and more specific.
Contact ThoughtLab For All Your Creative Needs
If this sounds fun and you think this kind of work would benefit your team, but you have no idea how to do it, give ThoughtLab a shout. We’ll get you started with weekly games, open your; creative souls, and help you run fun, dynamic, and highly productive brainstorming sessions.
Being creative comes with time and practice, we have the best creative team going, and we’re willing to help you get to the point of not needing us anymore. Give us a call, and let's get those juices flowing.
Tell us where you want to be. We’ll help get you there.
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