Brilliant Brainstorming: Warning – Brainstorming Fails Here
28th January 2010
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Have you ever sat in an expensive restaurant looking forward to the meal you just ordered? Have you ever been disappointed when it arrives because the sauce is thin, watery and tasteless? If you have, the chef forgot to reduce that sauce. That’s the process that drives off the excess water, naturally thickening the sauce and allowing it to develop intense colours and flavours, so improving its mouth watering qualities.

Brainstorming is similar.  It’s not just about putting ingredients together and cooking them, it matters how you finish it off. Get that wrong and the whole thing is a disappointment, a waste of time.  Creative thinking is about the generation of new ideas; ideas that are both novel in some aspect and useful.  Innovation is different; it’s about doing something with those ideas, making them real. It’s about finishing off the meal and for brainstorming you do that when you assess and develop the ideas that have emerged.

There are three stages to this process and one huge question mark.


Having generated a whole list of ideas, some old, some new, some immensely practical some completely off-the-wall, the next step is that of rationalisation. Many of the ideas that you have will be similar or complimentary. These ideas need to be combined to develop them into a set of, more mature ideas.

There will be a temptation to discard the wacky and off-the-wall ideas without a second thought.     STOP!  Don’t do that.

Mine these ideas for their essential principles. Take those principles and see what you can do with them. Can you develop a practical solution from them?  By their very nature these ideas are a rich source of potential innovation.

This process is very much like reducing the sauce to develop its richness and flavour


Now you have “reduced the sauce” and have a set of “tasty” potential solutions it is time to assess their viability. Some may be easily dismissed or verified and others may require additional work to validate the concept and the business case.

Be careful not to dismiss ideas just because they do not meet declared business criteria or your organisation cannot handle them. So often it is organisational resistance that stifles innovation. Instead phrase new problem statements around these issues and use the process to find innovative solutions to them – more on this below.

Planning and Execution

On the basis of viability and overall attractiveness, pick one or more solutions for implementation using whatever are your organisation’s normal processes for initiating a project.

An idea remains an idea until it is implemented. It’s at this point, having chosen the solution, that the normal planning disciplines of your organisation are brought to bear.  Do not go to this stage too early in the process. Go through the steps and prepare the ground. If the solution is derived from one of those wild and wacky ideas such caution will increase the chances that the solution proposal will be accepted.

The “Question Mark”

Be careful not to dismiss ideas just because your organisation cannot handle them. It is organisational resistance that stifles innovation. This is the “Question Mark”. Will your organisation choke on an otherwise valuable idea and spit it out, just because it cannot cope?

How to proceed? Set this organisational issue as the problem of a brainstorm. Look for ways the organisation or idea can be adapted to make it possible. Rationalise the ideas and confirm their viability.

When you have the complete, viable solution find a senior champion who will sponsor the idea and help you take it forward.

Now you have not only a good idea but a viable solution being brought to reality and that means that you can make brainstorming much more than a waste of time, you can make it an effective process from which your organisation can derive great benefits.

If you have to, don’t be afraid of finding ways to overcome obstacles that your organisation places in the way of innovation. One of the five key hallmarks of exemplary leadership, identified by Kouzes & Posner, is to challenge the organisation to do better, to innovate and improve performance and not rest on its laurels.  What is your experience?

There is a Creative Leader Bulletin 8 part mini-course called “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Brainstorming” which further develops the themes covered in the this Brilliant Brainstorming series. Subscription is free of charge.

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