Despite what the old adage says, there is such a thing as a bad idea when brainstorming! Seasoned innovators understand the importance of a well-designed session that focuses a team’s attention on the most important problems to be solved.

They understand the importance of the ideation process, and that creative problem solving is both an art and a science. They understand that different people respond to ideation sessions in different ways. And they understand that no amount of creativity and collaboration can succeed when the environment for taking risks outside of the session has not been developed. 

While it can be fun to brainstorm at a round table strewn with multi-colored markers, oddly-shaped sticky note pads, scattered candy, and Rubik’s Cubes, ideation sessions often prove to be wasted effort. Here we explore 10 common mistakes made when setting up brainstorming sessions:

  • The creativity exercises employed are not sufficient to yield great ideas. 

It is not enough to throw post-it notes on a table and ask participants to come up with new ideas. If the environment is not conducive to exploring what’s possible, the output of a brainstorming session may be limited to the most obvious solutions. The best brainstorming sessions are well designed to challenge participants to think creatively. They use stimulus and powerful questions to shift perspectives. Consider training core team members in lateral thinking and framing approaches, such as SCAMPER and Six Thinking Hats. Consider hiring a skilled ideation facilitator when the stakes are high.
Not all ideas are captured.

If the walls could talk, they would tell stories of the greatest ideas that were lost because they were never recorded. If your facilitator doesn’t say, “Write it down!” a dozen or more times in a brainstorming session, you may have hired the wrong facilitator. It’s all too common for participants to voice an idea, only for someone else to immediately redirect the conversation to a new idea. While this type of interplay and building upon others’ ideas should be encouraged, you must be diligent about capturing those fleeting thoughts that would otherwise be lost. Consider placing a table host at each table, and placards for the table to prompt the participants to capture ideas. Additionally, be careful to design your ideation so that each participant’s voice is heard. 

  • Participants don’t understand the problem-opportunity they’re addressing.

Significant time should be spent in advance of an ideation session developing a concise and insightful articulation of the problem-opportunity to be explored. This could take the form of a required pre-read in advance of the session, a short presentation describing consumer pain points, fun customer personas on the walls, or well-worded questions that describe a problem to be solved. In the absence of such materials, participants may show up believing they’re invited to simply be creative, when in reality they have been invited to generate solutions to a problem-opportunity area.

  • Ideas are debated or refuted before they have a chance to blossom.

I once overheard someone say, “Ideation is easy. We simply collect all the ideas then cross off the bad ones!” To be successful by this strategy, however, we must ensure that we do, indeed, collect all the ideas without pre-judgment. It’s a good idea to have ground rules that establish expectations for debate inside of a brainstorming session. Generally, it’s not a good idea to allow for open debate, unless that is the intended design of the session. Not only does debate stop an idea from being further explored, participants whose ideas are refuted may shut down and fail to offer up additional ideas for fear of the pattern repeating itself. A skilled facilitator will recognize when this is occurring, reminding the offender of the rules while encouraging the original idea-maker to continue contributing. Further, when a stirring idea is presented, the skilled facilitator will seek to constructively improve upon the idea rather than destructively eliminating it

  • Participants aren’t challenged enough to collaborate and improve their ideas.

Restated: it takes a jolt of energy to hop the fence. It is obvious to anyone who has attended an ideation session that many of the ideas that surface are in need of improvement. That’s not to say they are bad ideas. Rather, they may need some sun, water, and T.L.C. to grow. It is the job of the facilitator to ask questions like “what does it look like…” or “how could we…” or “what is possible if we…” Often, however, those types of generative prompts aren’t enough. Some brainstorming sessions need a kick in the pants, or a boost, from an agitator within the room to move the entire conversation to a new place. Not everyone is wired to ask questions that can stop a room in its tracks. If there are some of these folks in your session, give them permission to agitate when the room needs redirection!

  • The context of ideas is lost.

It’s not uncommon for an innovation team to collect all of the sticky notes at the end of an ideation session and have to discard a large fraction of them that do not contain enough information to be useful. This is where the process of scribing ideas is important. Some energy should be used at the outset of a session to instruct the participants on how to capture their ideas. A great idea on a sticky note has most of the following traits: a catchy title, a short description of what it is, the initials of the person who wrote it, and some reference to the specific problem-opportunity that the idea addresses. Consider placards at tables that demonstrate this.

  • The wrong people are at the table.

Restated: You can’t learn that which you already know. If both the opportunity area and the potential solutions are well-understood by the participants at the outset of a brainstorming session, the opportunity for breakthrough ideas is limited. Brainstorming should be a time for learning and generative discussion. It is a waste of time if spent capturing what you already know about a problem or opportunity. The most effective ideation sessions will explore new ideas, invite new perspectives, and connect seemingly unrelated concepts to identify new solutions. Consider inviting industry experts, experts from adjacent industries, creative customers, as well as employees to brainstorming sessions.

  • Participants don’t have the right mindset.

Not every brainstorming participant is a creative genius capable of connecting ideas and probing deeply to uncover new insight. That shouldn’t be expected, though it is wonderful when it occurs. A problem arises in that many brainstorming participants believe they are a creative genius, and they believe that is why they were invited to the room. Most likely, however, they were not invited to the room for that reason. Commonly, participants are chosen for their deep subject matter expertise. Maybe they are a technical expert like a finance professional or engineer. Maybe they are a functional expert like a lawyer or human resources employee. Maybe they are a process expert with knowledge of how to move ideas through an organisation. In each of these cases, they are invited to brainstorming sessions for their expertise, not their creativity. Ensure that this is known to them. You want the engineer in the room to bring knowledge of all the latest technologies in her field. You want the customer in the room to articulate the pain points through stories. You want the department head in the room to share intimate knowledge on the strategies of the organisation.

  • The objective of brainstorming is not known to the participants.

Restated: The idea is dead on arrival as soon as it leaves the room. Too often there is a mismatch between the types of ideas collected in an ideation session to the types of ideas desired. Maybe a product manager is hosting a session to identify and prioritise new features of an existing product line, only to exit with a list of entirely new product ideas. The converse is also possible: A product developer hoping to identify a new product line leaves with ideas to improve existing product lines. These situations can be avoided by clearly articulating to the participants why they are there, and how their ideas will be used. It seems simple enough but is often an overlooked step in the design of a brainstorming session.

  • The constraints are not known to the participants.

You may remember the scene from the movie Apollo 13 where engineers on the ground are shown a table full of equipment available to the astronauts orbiting the moon. Their challenge: “We must find a way for this to fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” It was only through a complete understanding of the limitations, or constraints, that a feasible solution was generated. It is not taboo to share the limitations – funding, materials, organisational bandwidth, legal restrictions, etc. – with the participants of a brainstorming session. Orson Welles famously stated, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Knowledge of the constraints can fuel creativity and inspire fantastic, and feasible, innovations.

I used to tell my teams, “Most ideas aren’t worth the Post-it Note they’re written on.” When challenged, I would explain that this statement is not judgment on the merit of an idea, itself. Rather, at a macro level, it is a reminder that when we don’t take the time to understand the problem-opportunity, and if we don’t have a team that is freed up to execute, and if the environment is not well-conditioned for experimentation, then the entire endeavour of idea generation will be fruitless. At the micro-level, this quip is a reminder that if we don’t take time to set up our ideation sessions for success, we waste our time and the time of our valued contributors. The ideas we get out of brainstorming efforts may very well be not worth the paper they were written on.