Why Brainstorming without a Facilitator Usually Fails

by Cher Ravenell

“The ideas that come out of most brainstorming sessions are usually superficial, trivial, and not very original. They are rarely useful. The process however, seems to make uncreative people feel that they are making innovative contributions.”
A. Harvey Block

We have all been there. You are invited to a “brainstorming” meeting with a few other directors to work out a problem. Is it your problem? No. It is a larger company problem. Do they want your input? Probably not, but it would look worse to not include you. Envision the room, a couple of vice presidents, a few directors and post-its. After all, someone looked it up. To brainstorm, you need post-its. What to do with all these post-its? They don’t know because they aren’t trained in creative problem solving and the process that goes along with it.

Here is the typical scenario. The meeting starts with “How can we…generate more income, recruit more students, reduce our expenses, etc.?” A department vice president who wants fresh ideas poses the question. Unfortunately, half the people in the room work for him or her. If they had fresh ideas, why haven’t they brought them up before? I ask myself, why are they even in the room?

We all grab our post-its and start writing. I’m usually good for a sound half dozen ideas that I have seen other companies try and another three or four that I would try myself. But, as I look around the room, I know my ideas will be scratched off one-by-one. People claim to want novel ideas but are more apt to find flaws in them with excuses like lack of resources or “we have tried that before and it didn’t work.” Of course, that was 20 years ago so, that great idea is thrown out the window.

Fast-forward through the obligatory two hours allotted for the meeting. The ideas picked are superficial and pedestrian. Result: we have gotten nowhere and I have lost two hours of my time that I can never get back. I leave with my assigned duties. On a good day…no duties.

For those of you who know the process, what’s missing? Everything! No clarifying of the situation, no generating novel ideas, no diverging, certainly no developing. No one has looked at the issues, no one has formed an action plan, and no one leaves feeling productive. Please…stop the brainstorming. This is all wrong. You are plucking one tool out of a whole process and going from a start point in the middle and pushing people to implement. If you really want your problems solved, hire a skilled facilitator. If you can’t afford one, find someone looking for experience in facilitation. There are people who are trained to do this for a living. Yes, truly there are. Save valuable time and resources by seeking help. You may even be solving the wrong problem. Think of it this way, you can unclog your sink, does it make you a licensed plumber? Exactly!

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