By Vicki Wrona, PMP:

We all know what brainstorming is and how to do it. Then how come so many people do it so poorly? They think they do it well, but as an observer, I can tell you they don’t. And the ones who are proudest and loudest of their skills are often the ones lacking them the most. Let’s explore what brainstorming is and why so many people find it difficult to do it right and get true benefits from it.

The biggest reason I see is that those leading the brainstorming session are too involved in the outcome rather than the process. This is unfortunate and driven by the fact that we often run our own meetings and do not have the luxury of using an outside facilitator. As a manager or a project manager, if we need some new ideas, approaches or solutions, we lead the team in developing them. The trouble with this scenario is that we own the ultimate decision. That is normally not a bad thing and is part of our responsibility. But in the case of finding new solutions or ideas, if we are going to be held personally responsible for the outcome, we will be much more involved in finding and shaping that outcome. That means that we will quickly break the first rule of brainstorming which is to gather ideas without judging them. We will also limit thinking beyond the norm or outside the box by our team. That will limit the ideas that are stated and developed by inhibiting those who are participating in the process.

Instead, if we had a facilitator, they would own the PROCESS and not the RESULT, and so could neutrally gather those ideas and act as the gatekeeper to stop others from judging, keeping the process open and encouraging.

What do we do if we need to brainstorm and know we cannot bring in an experienced outside facilitator? There are a couple options. One is to assign another team member to act as a facilitator for this issue. Select someone who is not intimately involved in the issue at hand so they are less likely to violate the rules of successfully brainstorming. You may need to coach this person prior to the meeting so they are clear on their role as facilitator and your expectations of the process. Set ground rules with the team before the brainstorming begins so everyone understands that this person will be leading the session and that you are an equal participator with everyone else. The last thing you want is your ideas or comments to squash participation from the team because of your rank or title as manager. They have expertise in areas you don’t and you need that. I prefer this method when possible.

Another option is to acknowledge the potential shortcomings of personally leading a brainstorming session and make an effort to avoid them. However, I have found that even when I have just explained the challenges and pitfalls of brainstorming properly and gotten agreement from the PM that I am coaching that they will try not to fall into this trap, they will do so within the first couple minutes of the brainstorming session. It is human nature to try to manipulate the outcome and to get involved rather than to let it happen. It is very difficult to ‘only’ own the process and not get involved in the decision.

I am probably not telling you anything new. We already know the rules of brainstorming and the role of a facilitator. But a reminder never hurts so we can improve our performance.

Coming up, I will explore a technique you may want to try called reverse brainstorming.