Why Brainstorming Meetings Suck and How to Make Them Better

If you want to see eyes roll, tell the team you planned a brainstorming meeting. The hope is to practice innovation, foster teamwork, or prop up low morale. Motives, whether sane or desperate, propel such a meeting to the calendar. The effectiveness of these types of meetings is another story, however. Be honest. They suck. Let me jog your memory.

The dreaded no-idea-is-bad on the white board turns into three people dominating the meeting while the rest watch the clock, hoping to get to the break room microwave first to warm the leftovers they brought for lunch. After an hour’s work, the white board has the thoughts of these three people, and the no-bad-ideas promise fails. Passing objections and restrained snickers frustrate the goal of non-judgmental civility, however. The leader writes lists of ideas on the board, filtering, categorizing, and labeling them in real time, pretending to show no bias. What does this meeting produce? Not much.

The first idea might be the worst idea

The greatest risk in the brainstorming approach is in not taking a risk. Uncertainty breeds risk aversion. We become immobile, or even worse, we move too quickly to adopt a less-than-helpful solution. Our hammer is within reach, so even though the problem isn’t to pound a nail into the wall, we grab it and swing, displaying confidence, certainty, and strength. We stick with what we know.

Researchers show us that the first solution to a problem is likely not the best solution, even if it is logical, practical, and functional. We pick low hanging fruit on a fully stocked tree. It’s like grabbing for a hammer when the issue requires a lawnmower. We truncate problem finding and solution finding more than we’d care to admit. Fast-paced action overrides creativity. As soon as a plausible idea arrives, we run with it. However, doing this misses the way innovation works. In fact, creativity is all about idea generation. So, we do need what a brainstorming meeting promises, but seems to never deliver—more and better ideas.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

There is a science to solving the brainstorming meeting, thankfully. We operate, basically, with two kinds of thinking—divergent thinking and convergent thinking. It’s not as simple as right-or-left brain thinking, however. Scientists have learned about brain networks that connect various sections of our brains for certain activities. What is important is that divergent and convergent thought are the ones most active for innovation and creativity. 

Divergent thinking generates ideas through opening your mind, using parts of your brain that smash together bits of information and expressing them with surprising connections. The more we use divergent thinking, the more ideas we create. In fact, not only do we create more ideas, we create better ideas, too.1 As you might guess, the word divergent assumes it’s not the normal way of thinking and you would be right. To make the 20% of divergent thinkers in the population feel better, the term convergent thinking arrived. 

Convergent thinking happens when we use our brain’s executive functions and make the lists and order the chaos into something logical. When we talk about idea generation, convergent thinking actually harms the process! A hallmark of this way of thinking is to find the one best solution, rather than many solutions. Convergent thought filters ideas from many to one, inhibiting the discovery of multiple results. While we need to use this way of thinking to form our weekly schedule or answer multiple-choice questions on a test, it doesn’t help us uncover breakthroughs.

Creativity bridges opposite ways of thought 

The secret is that both ways of thinking are equally important, but you can’t do them at the same time. If you try, it’s like having feet both on the gas and on the brakes.2 There is a shift we need to undergo, separating how these both work. The shift between them is like a bridge between the magic of divergent imaginative thinking to the science of convergent logical thinking.

Convergent thinking solves with order, lists, and spreadsheets, smoothing the turmoil of our personal lives, businesses, and society. The myth is this: divergent thinking may seem good in theory but only effective in the rare story of the artist or entrepreneur genius seen on covers of magazines. Yes, 60-80% of us need better skills in divergent thought.3 The hope is that we can grow either way of thinking with the right habits and mindset. One first place to start is in how you organize a brainstorming meeting. 

How to brainstorm better

Here’s a plan to make your brainstorm meetings not suck. Break the meeting into two separate teams. One will be divergent—open minded with the sole purpose of generating multiple ideas. The other will be convergent. This second grouping will then use convergent thinking to categorize, judge, and test the ideas discovered in step one. The last step will be to bring all the people together in a third session to collaborate on how to implement the best ideas. This is like my expression of the creative process I titled, Creativity in Three Steps: The Dream, The Sandbox, and The Story. Let’s list out my process as applied to a brainstorming meeting.

  • The Dream (Team 1): This is the place to discover the ideas, problems, and solutions. This is the gas, or the open-minded divergent meeting. Cast this group with dreamers, innovators, and imaginative engineers.
  • The Sandbox (Team 2): This is the place to develop the ideas. Which ones can be engineered? What ideas will fit our budget? Cast this with the people who know how to say no, but also smart people who can see the big picture.
  • The Story (Combined Team): This is the place to collaborate on how to deliver the idea to the world. Who is your audience? Does the idea follow your core values? Is this who we are?

This is the entire group, combining the two.I’d love to share more of this content with you. In fact, I wrote a book about the creative process. The proposed title is MINDBLOWN: Unlock Your Creative Genius By Bridging Science and Magic. To learn more about it click here!

Notes:

  1. Shelley Carson, Your Creative Brain: seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 131.
  2. Anne Manning,“Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking: How to Strike a Balance,” Video, May 10, 2016, https://blog.dce.harvard.edu/professional-development/divergent-vs-convergent-thinking-how-strike-balance.
  3. Shelley Carson, Your Creative Brain, 128.

Why Brainstorming Meetings Suck and How to Make Them Better