Are brainstorms really ‘groupwank’?

A borefest. A headpunch. An eyestab. A mindpain. A timewaste. A lostday. A thoughtfuck. A workpuke. A wordspurt. A shitshop.” These are just some of the phrases used by Andy Nairn of Lucky Generals to describe the process of brainstorming, in a recent Marketing column here.

Now, as someone who designs and facilitates workshops as part of my job I am of course biased. But I think if, and its a big if, a workshop is well designed, planned and facilitated it can be very effective, as part of a project.

Below I look at his criticisms of brainstorming, and how to possibly address them.

1. “Not all brainstorm participants contribute to the same degree…”

Regarding participants Andy suggests that, “Some coast, safe in the knowledge that others will do the brunt of the work. Others dominate, intimidating colleagues with their seniority, forcefulness or just sheer volume.” This is a risk in a workshop, and its why a lot of careful planning is required. We would spend time before the workshop understanding the team members to understand their roles, but also their behaviours, to spot the sort of issues Andy describes. Decades of experience then helps manage both of the tricky cases Andy points out during the workshop. First, we ensure active participation both by managing open plenary sessions to ensure people contribute, and also by splitting out into smaller groups. Second, and most difficult, we have to manage the case of the senior person who tends to dominate. An example of the this happened in an important workshop last year, when the CMO interrupted the first presentation of the day several times in a matter of minutes. When I forcibly but politely asked her to capture her comments and share them at the end, the shock of the other participants was visible, and you could hear a pin drop. But the intervention worked, thank god. The CMO respected the correction made, and went on to help enforce the right behaviour in the rest of the workshop.

2. “Many great innovators are introverts – literally not heard above the corporate posturing …”

Another great point. I suggest two solutions here. First, as described above, a trained facilitator should be able to partly address this issue and make sure that introverted innovators are heard and able to contribute. Second, there are other ways to get input from these sorts of innovative people which don’t require them to be in the workshop at all. We always employ ‘parallel processing’ on projects, with multiple sources of idea generation. A worksop could be one such process, but this would be complemented with other techniques, including one-on-one sessions with creative people who work best solo.

3. “Group-think tends to gravitate around average ideas.”

Genuinely disruptive ideas are either killed off by some crude voting exercise at the end of the session or neutered by merging with a separate suggestion,” suggests Andy. This sort of risk aversion can be a problem in any group exercise. Adapting the workshop design depending on the stage of the project can help. Early on, we would design an ‘Ideas Workshop’, and encourage free and even radical thinking: open things up, and keep ideas running even if they seem challenging as you go into a stage of exploration. Later on, reality does have to come into the equation when a company is deciding which ideas to invest behind. At this stage an ‘Action Workshop’ is more about narrowing down and selecting the ideas with the best chance of ROI.

I also suggest that the problem Andy describes can be avoided with a strong and visionary leader in the process. I have run workshops with the sort of voting Andy describes, but the CMO has then taken a leadership call to back a different, perhaps more radical solution. That is absolutely their prerogative. Business is not a democracy. The best leaders listen to the group, consider their feedback and then have the balls to make the calls.

4. “The kind of challenge that assembles a whole swathe of senior management is unlikely to be solved in a couple of hours.”

This is spot on. You are unlikely to make any significant progress in two hours. Our workshops tend to be held over a couple of days, with time for a variety of exercises and different types of creative stimulus. Crucially, this also allows time for us to work up and bring them to life ideas overnight in real time to share with the team.

5. “Brainstorms masquerade as action but represent another excuse for organisations to talk, rather than do.”

I think this is a valid criticism of meetings in general in companies: they often are a way to actually delay making a decision, with a lack of clarity about the action plan. We have a very action-focused approach to workshops and push people very hard to agree a clear action plan: who is doing what and when. We also challenge people when they brief us to check a worksop is really needed. In the short term this approach has meant us turning away business, but in the long terms we think it pays off; people respect us for giving honest advice abut when a workshop is needed, and when it is a ‘nice to have’.

6. “They promise sudden breakthroughs to problems that are often long-running and complex.”  

Can a well designed workshop be part of a process that can solve tricky issues? Absolutely. But Anyone who claims that a short brainstorming will create a breakthrough solution to a long-running and complex problem is taking s**t.

In conclusion, the type of brainstorming Andy describes is indeed to be avoided at all cost. It sounds like Andy has suffered through some poorly planned, badly facilitated, overly-short sessions that over-promised and under-delivered. However, in our experience, workshops that are well designed, planned and facilitated can be a productive, effective and enjoyable part of a project process.