Actually, brainstorms do work

Slide1Funny how trends roll in the world of marketing. Agency names are one: the current norm is for the single word cerebral stimulators: ‘Thus*’; ‘Meaning*’; ‘Vessel*’, ‘Occur*’ – you know the sort of thing. More serious is the way established ways of working are parodied and denounced. Focus Groups are a good example: they don’t work; they don’t reveal anything of the true behaviour of consumers and so on. At the edges such claims are undoubtedly true, but they demean the inherent value of a well recruited, well run and more importantly, commercially aware debrief can deliver to most clients who, usually by their own admission, don’t interact with their customers that often.

There has been a tide rising too against brainstorms. At worse, there’s the jump on the bandwagon group who simply claim that they don’t work, with little substantiation. Others, more thoughtfully denounce what has been seen hitherto as good practise, saying that it doesn’t reflect the reality of how ideas emerge in the real world. For example, it’s claimed that creative behavioural practise like suspending disbelief and ensuring that a positive, value adding mindframe is adopted and rigourously applied throughout the session, or that the creative opportunity is tightly defined are bound to fail because they don’t reflect the criticism that ideas soon receive.

Here’s the thing though: brainstorms do work.

To be effective they need to work as part of a creative process – an accelerator perhaps – but not as the start and end in itself.

This assertion is based on evidence captured over years of being a client and buying (and buying into) creative processes and in more recent times studying and applying creative best practise as part of my own brand building company.   And like a good idea, these guidelines, this best practise, has emerged over time not as a ‘Ta Da!’ moment (see below…)

Set realistic expectations: who really believes that by simply getting a group of people together in a room for a day that all your commercial problems will be solved? If you look back at where great ideas come from there’s little evidence of ‘Eureka!’ moments – at least in the sense that one minute, you wander lonely as a cloud, and the next you have solved the thing. Brainstorms are excellent in bringing people together who share a desire to solve a problem or tap into an opportunity, away from the value eroding distractions of e mail, disrespectful interruptions and day long meetings, to focus on doing one thing, really well. Face it: how often does that happen in your day-to-day work?

Ideas emerge: I have my best ideas in the immediate working hours after creative sessions. Typically, I leave brainstorms with super heightened commercial-creative senses. Wandering around a supermarket or a retail environment, not just with a problem, but specific ideas, on my mind, allow me to sharpen them, critique them, add value and improve them and share my thinking more broadly. The role of a brainstorm as a creative stimulus in its own right has been underestimated: indeed, I would argue that for innovators and decision makers, this is the value.     And there is a broader theme here, about idea emergence.   Ideas can emerge at any time – the beauty of a well specified creative session is that it gives an outlet for these ideas to be aired, built upon and get more bright minds working on them.

Acceleration: any creative session where the business and participants don’t care or have skin in the game will fail. Getting the people in the room who have a need to solve it or a commercial itch to scratch, increase their chances of success. And more to the point, it increases the chances of (a) something happening at all and (b) something happening quickly. Creative sessions give this core group the chance to work on the problem and feel the creative – commercial challenges and be part of the answers.

Deconstruct later: a criticism for brainstorming is that ideas thrive off being criticised. There’s truth in this. But there’s a difference between criticism with good intent and downright thuggery. Idea seedlings are fragile and loosely formed, they don’t have the same constitution as a concept, blooming and robust. If they are stamped on the moment they poke their heads above the surface, expect finding commercial-creative solutions to your business challenges a barren task. Structure for criticism in the session if you must, but in my experience, a working day spent on developing ideas without fear of them being immediately killed is a rare luxury that should be protected.

Context is everything: an issue for creative sessions is that one set of rules seems to apply to them, normally introduced by the facilitator, but which don’t apply when you go ‘back to work’. For example: capture everything is one of these rules. If you don’t write it down, you will lose it. Yet this is just as important if you are wandering around a supermarket, or noting the customer service experience in a bank, or trying to check out during an online purchase or chatting to your partner. Keep a notebook. Write your ideas down. And bring them with you to the brainstorm.

Show your work off: ideas grow exponentially in proportion to the number of engaged brains working on them. In a brainstorm this may mean that you are asked to bring your ideas to life visually, perhaps cutting things out from magazines or deploying stickman artistry. Again though, why not all the time?   Show your work, stick it up around your desk or create a dedicated area where you can show off the emerging thinking. Let others scribble on it, or draw their stickmen in turn. Being prepared for a brainstorm doesn’t mean checking where the venue is and arriving on time (although both help, clearly) – it’s about coming to that session with some solutions already swimming about in your brain.

The common denominator is this: be prepared and brainstorms will work for you:

  • ensure the problem you are developing ideas for is one the business has heart for.
  • get the right people in the room – decision makers, not just free-wheeling creative thinkers
  • give time and space to the group bringing their ideas with them – a winning idea may already be in the team
  • creative solutions start well in advance of the session – brief those involved at the start of your overall process, not just the brainstorm

If the role and focus of a brainstorm is as a high impact intervention in your overall creative effort, then there’s enormous value to be had, even if this view does swim against the tide.

* Names changed to protect the Guilty.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, an innovation, research and strategy company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 7885 408367; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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