Effective Brainstorming: Throw Away the Flip Chart!

What simple change will reignite the power of brainstorming in your organization?


When it comes to creative leadership, Chris Barez-Brown, author and creativity guru, suggests a couple ways to ensure that your environment and conditions are right before you begin.

“The problem with brainstorms is they're often run in a terrible way,” Chris says. He encourages you to ask, “What's needed here?"

Watch this video for tips on how to improve your brainstorming sessions.

Chris: I'm sure that you've been to hundreds of brainstorms. I've seen them in all of my clients' offices and they happen on all sorts of different topics. The problem with brainstorms is they're often run in a terrible way. I am going to dramatize the nightmare that is my brainstorm hell just to illustrate some points and then I'll teach you how to have ideas in a slightly more productive fashion.

First of all, I'd like you to imagine we're in a board room, we've been in there all day long. The CEO has gone through a massive agenda. It's involved analyzing budgets and at some point he said, "You know what, that would be a good thing to have a brainstorm about." We drank coffee all day, we haven't seen any light. He said, "You know, we finished 15 minutes early. Maybe we can have that brainstorm now."

He asks for a volunteer, nobody jumps out of their seat, so he asks John from Accounts to facilitate the session. He walks up to the flip chart and he looks petrified as he stands there holding it like a best friend because everyone's glaring at him for him to produce the results. He then asks the question, "Has anyone got any ideas?"

To illustrate what this is going to look like, I want us to imagine we're having ideas on how to improve this bottle of water. So I'm here, I'm John from Accounts. Has anyone got any ideas?

Woman 1: Glass.

Chris: You would put in glass. Thank you. He's delighted because there's an idea out there. What else?

Man 1: Flavored water.

Chris: Flavored water, that's brilliant! That too. What else.

Woman 2: Color.

Chris: Color, yes.

Man 2: Smell.

Chris: Smell! He fills up the flip chart. At some point there's alcohol, there's bendy bottles, there's all sorts of things going on. Soon the flip chart is full. John is delighted because his vision of success were words on a flip chart. He then rips them off, he hands them to the most junior person in the room who then goes to type them up over the weekend. They then get sent around by email next week and the best that happens is it's filed in miscellaneous, but most common it's just delete.

The reason is all those words on the flip chart were pretty useless because actually they were just thoughts. They weren't ideas. The difference between a thought and an idea is you can do an idea and if you don't have ideas as an output, you've just wasted your time.

The reason this didn't work is numerous. First off, we have too many people in the room. I had a client recently who said they had a brainstorm with 25 people in the room. That, to me, is a conference, not a brainstorm. I, personally, think that small is beautiful, so just have three, maybe four people. If you work them hard enough, you'll get enough ideas. If a lot of people want to be involved, break them down into smaller groups and you will find it way, way easier.

Second thing is, focus upon one idea at a time. In this session it was like battle of the ideas. "It's my idea!" "No, my idea!" You are not focusing and building together and therefore it becomes competitive and fractionated. If you focus on one idea, you will get an output that is actionable.

When you're doing that, it's really important you capture one idea at a time on one piece of paper. I've got a couple here that I worked up earlier to illustrate that. This idea is called "deliver on deal," and this comes from my frustration and the fact that I order things on the Internet and it always turns up late, especially at Christmas.

So my idea is when you order on the Internet, if it costs $100 and it's due on this date, for every day it's late, you get a 5% refund. So on my calendar it's three days late, so it only cost $85. Simple idea. It's something that we can do and I can give that piece of paper to somebody and they can action it.

Another idea, this one is called "poo sticks" and basically it's a match and there's a nose there smelling it and it says, "It smells great!" You light a match and it's incense impregnated, so it leaves a fantastic smell in bathrooms. It's an idea that I can give to somebody and they can prototype.

If you capture your ideas in an actionable way, all that creativity goes to some use. If you just capture thoughts, it's a complete waste of time.

Chris Barez-Brown

Chris Barez-Brown has been unleashing the creative potential of worldwide organizations including Nike, Coca Cola, Diageo, The Gates Foundation, Sony and WPP. He is a master of metamorphosis, challenging and transforming businesses th...

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