Thursday, September 16, 2010

What are the Rules of Brainstorming?

I’ve had the privilege of working and brainstorming with a lot of incredibly talented people over the years; daring people, risk taking people, entrepreneurial types with creative appetites that never fill. These are artists, film makers, business people, preachers, musicians, graphic designers, internerds, super-shreds, and even a few random strangers who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I love dreaming and scheming with creatives and have enjoyed seeing the product of some of these sessions when they hit the street.

My experience with these people has helped form a set of guidelines that I use in leading and shaping creative spaces to brainstorm. I don’t hold to these with a tight-fisted rigidity, however, brainstorm sessions are markedly different when I ignore any of the guidelines. Sometimes these guidelines are explicitly expressed so that everybody knows and understands the “rules,” other times – with seasoned creatives – the guidelines are implicit and embedded into the conversation; everybody just knows.

  1. Be Careful Who You Brainstorm With
There are certain people who have a tendency to stir creativity, give life to a thought or concept, and who are ok with wide-open reckless imagining. There are other people, often calling themselves realists, who are especially gifted at putting out the fires of the creative process. At some point, these realists do come in handy offering valuable insights; however, they are rarely helpful in the beginning stages of brainstorming. Make sure that the people you invite into your dialogue are generous with their imagination.  
  1. The Environment is Important
Simply, get out of the boardroom*. A bunch of suits sitting around a big board table trying to drum up the next slick marketing campaign, initiative, or whatever, does produce results; but maybe not the best. The environment does influence how we think and live – the study of human geography clearly shows this. I’ve found that getting out of places that encourage systematic, top-down, and structured cultures and into places that are more fluid, relational, experimental, and playful generates a culture of creativity that far surpasses the boardroom. Some of my favourite places to brainstorm and imagine are brewpubs, après-shred patios, the forest, crowded public spaces, and in my living room with people that I like.

*One other note re: leaving the boardroom: turn your mobile device off and stop worrying about your twitter account, noisy emails, and text messages. Give your attention to being present with your thoughts and where they might lead.
  1. Practice Imagination
Once you’ve got the people and the place nailed down, begin with some exercises in imagination. Don’t link these warm-ups to the project. Make them fun and eccentric, and go out of your way to show how an idea can blossom into something never imagined just moments before. This helps people to loosen up and begin thinking wildly without the controls and limitations that so often ambush a brainstorm session.
  1. Mix and Match Opposites
Mixing and matching opposites, experimenting with apparent contradictions, messing around with the taboo and the prude, turning propositions into metaphors, and using unconventional mediums go a long way in helping ideas develop and form. Plus, it’s a Canadian metric ton of fun to peer around corners and feel out nuances and subtle connections. If we look hard enough, we begin seeing that everything seems to be connected to everything else. This requires creatives to have good eyes, listen with attentive ears, and delve into seemingly unrelated disciplines of thought and practice. When the curious brainstormer pokes and prods around with ambiguities, new ideas are likely to be unleashed.        
  1. Where There is Smoke, There is Fire
If a thought or an idea sparks an interest, follow the idea and flesh it out until the thought becomes ridiculous…and then follow it a little further. Over and over, I have found that out of some of the very weirdest, wackiest, and worst ideas come the very best. The endurance to follow these ideas from horrible-to-great requires some creative hop-scotching and a singular dedication to this: Do not prematurely evaluate ideas. Leave that to the realists (aka CFO’s and accountants) and wait for a good level-headed strategy session later on. Critical evaluation of ideas is important, but it is for a later time.
  1. Have a Safe Word
Finally, build into the brainstorm a place of refuge for anyone who feels like their idea is being unfairly attacked. Make it fun, light, add an action to it, but whatever you do, make sure that your creative team feels safe to explore. The safe word or action should be decided on beforehand and respected when it is used. Safe words provide a moment of pause that helps everyone to recalibrate and begin moving forward again.

Brainstorming with daring creatives is a tremendous amount of fun, tends to look more like fun than work, and is likely to produce more results at a consistently higher quality more often. Happy brainstorming!