How Brainstorming Can Sap Your Soul

— A Rebel’s Guide

Brainstorming. A corporate favourite. Celebrated by consultants and revered by management.

A lot of organisations like brainstorming because a collective activity can get people working together and in theory it makes participants “buy in” to a process or change. It can take serious effort to look demotivated, disengaged or not “on board” in front of your colleagues and bosses. (click to tweet)

What happens behind the scenes can be a different story.

This is precisely why in corporate brainstorming or “blue sky thinking” sessions half the participants can feel disengaged, frustrated and hate every minute whilst the other half feel anxious, uncomfortable and hate every minute.

But everyone carries on regardless and toes the line.

You might have to spend hours listening to the loudest speakers in your group telling you how wonderful their ideas are. It’s likely you’ll conform. It’s likely your brain will take the path of least resistance and will stay in it’s functional fixedness, chugging along the same tracks it usually takes to think of things rather than being fired up to take an unusual neural pathway to somewhere else.

You might “switch off” from the process altogether. After all, those in the group with the loudest voices have it covered don’t they? The “Bystander Effect” will be out in full force. Participants will sit back, confident the usual suspects will take action. Leigh Thompson, of the Kellogg School found that 60–75% of all the talking in brainstorming exercises is normally done by just a few people. (click to tweet)

It’s all too easy to get swept along with everyone else (particularly if you’re the shy retiring type) in a group — but what if you actually happen to be one of the loud talkers? There will be times when you get carried along by your own steam. Afterwards you’ll reflect and realise opportunities were missed.

If you’re facilitating a brainstorming session you may later come to regret that although it seemed productive at the time, in reality you have ended up producing “more of the same.” It takes a special kind of facilitator to appreciate the difference between flip charts and whiteboards packed by a volume of “ideas” and perhaps fewer, but seriously rich ideas validated on two important grounds — 1) that you feel heart, mind, body and soul are right for you or your company and 2) that you can confidently take forward to validate in your chosen marketplace.

It’s stating the obvious, but to get ground breaking ideas you need to think completely differently. (click to tweet) You need to be in a good place. The pressure of being “on the spot” in a team meeting doesn’t always lend itself to this.

Research by D Golerman, P Kaufman (1992) found creativity in children is killed by:

  • Surveillance — feeling constantly watched whilst you’re working

  • Evaluation — feeling judged on accomplishments

  • Competition — win/lose situations rather than being allowed to progress at your own rate

  • Over control — being told what to do

  • Pressure — being aware of others’ expectations

  • Time — our cultural perceptions and associations with time

Sounds horribly like a corporate brainstorming session doesn’t it? There’s no surprise in appreciating the factors which kill creativity in children apply to adults too — but what are the alternatives?

Athletes and performers experience what they call the “white moment” which is being in a state when everything flows. It clicks. Everything feels harmonious. You lose track of time or it appears to slow down or go super fast.

In “flow” your brain expands less energy.(click to tweet) It’s effective. Relevant parts of your brain are active, others, not needed are quiet. This can explain why people often report feeling all “zen”.

This is no-mindedness rather than no-consciousness. Your mind is free. Clear. You’re just doing it. You’re intuitive at this point. This isn’t the same as doing tasks on autopilot, which can be numb repetition. Everyone has their own activity where they feel zen like. For some it’s going for a run, for others it’s cleaning, driving in the dark or taking a shower.

Brady Wilson says to feel “brilliant” you need a “trifecta of high performance hormones flooding your brain: dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.(click to tweet) Obviously, when you’re sleep deprived, preoccupied with worries or feeling run down you’re less likely to generate show stopper ideas.

Christopher Bergland’s book “The Athlete’s Way” outlines his theory that it’s the vagus nerve which keeps cortisol low and acetylcholine which calms the parasympathetic nervous system — which is what give us grace under pressure. Bergland thinks creating superfluidity probably lies in engaging all four brain hemispheres along with the vagus nerve.

Firing new ideas is all about connectivity. (click to tweet) In our brains and in our external environment, when we work with others to find new meaning to something. Any exercise which essentially involves individuals generating their own ideas and only then sharing them to enhance and develop them with others, works better.

This is a helpful aspect of “Brain Writing”, coined by UT Arlington Professor Paul Paulus where you’re writing your ideas first and talking second. You can write ideas on post-it notes for example and then vote for the best ideas before more structured discussions take place in a meeting.

Only after some space to generate your ideas independently would the group be facilitated through a number of further exercises to explore the ideas. Anna Craft’s “possibility thinking” might be incorporated and Brady Wilson’s three questions could be asked:

  • What’s possible here?

  • What matters most to me in this situation?

  • How might we…?

Ideally, to explore the task at hand you’d look for as many connections surrounding the ideas as possible. You could also include “Reverse Brainstorming” where you look for ideas to prevent your problem happening in the first place and “Imaginary Brainstorming” — adding imaginary elements of imaginary problems so you combine real and imaginary problems to explore what’s relevant.

It’s this aspect of finding different connections and exploring different approaches which will yield different results. Practical exercises spark this process and asking the right questions can help develop ideas, uncovering different layers within them. As Tony Robbins says:

In short, there is a better way.

If you’d like to find out more about how asking the right questions can help you take your powerful idea and unleash it on the world, my new programme, #JustOneIdeaToday could be for you. Find out more here: www.JustOneIdea.Today

Adrian Furnham “The Brainstorming Myth” Business Strategy Review, Volume 11, Number 4, December 2000, pp. 21–28(8) Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Garold Stasser and William Titus “Pooling of Unshared Information in Group Decision Making: Biased Information Sampling During Discussion” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 48, №6. (June 1985), pp. 1467–1478 Key: citeulike:1398512
Jason Gallate, Cara Wong, Sophie Ellwood, R W Rosing and Allan Snyder, Page 146–151 Published online 08/06/12

Originally published on Medium on 10 September 2018.