Svyatoslav Biryulin
Brainstorming doesn't work
When it comes to strategic workshops
More than six years ago, when I left my cozy CEO's office to become a solopreneur and strategic consultant, I believed in the brainstorming. So, when I conducted my first strategic workshops, I tried to make teams brainstorm, but I rarely was happy with the results, and neither were the CEOs of the companies. So, I tried to analyze the reasons and have a couple of thoughts to share.

What's the difference between a business meeting and a brainstorming session? Both are forms of group discussions, but the latter is considered to be more informal. Four rules of brainstorming are:

1. Generate as many ideas as possible

2. Criticizing ideas is not allowed

3. Wild and ambitious ideas are welcome

4. People are encouraged to build on their ideas

So, brainstorming is still a conversation that is supposed to be less formal than a regular nine o'clock meeting, and participants should feel free to say whatever they want. Dividing group meetings into two types was essential for the XX century's tight corporate culture, with suits, ties, and hierarchy. At that time, employees needed special permission to share their opinions freely. Today, most companies embrace the informal culture, so workers always feel free to propose an idea.

But, from my experience, if the corporate culture in a company is brutal, team members won't suggest many creative ideas even if they are asked to. Creative people don't feel well in a toxic culture and often leave before somebody asks them their opinion.

If the corporate culture in a company is strong and supportive, why organize a brainstorming session? Employees should gush with ideas daily and don't need a special event to awaken their creativity.

So, if a company organizes a meeting of this kind, it doesn't have too many fresh ideas. And dozens of brainstorms won't help.

Ground for new ideas – market context

Ideas don't come out of nowhere. There are no ideas inside the office building. And when we ask, say, financial guys or heads of production to take part in a strategic workshop, they often lack crucial information about the customers' experience. Even sales representatives often feel it difficult to offer new ideas because their day-to-day interactions with clients don't imply deep immersion into their pains, problems, ways of working, etc. So, I prefer to get prepared for a workshop some weeks beforehand. I ask all the group members to visit their clients, as many as possible. They should ask many questions, observe, and try to notice small details and nuances.

And then, we collect all the facts, insights, and ideas that the team members collected, cluster them, and sort them – and only then are we ready for the workshop. It is, thus, not a "free discussion" on everything. Instead, we use collected data as a source of inspiration.

And even then, I try not to use the brainstorming technique. To make the most of the event, I prefer to put participants in an unusual situation, and we play games. Depending on the scenario, they may play for customers, competitors, and complete strangers. I use lateral thinking and some group games to unleash their creativity. If you look for non-standard ideas, use non-standard methods.

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