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Why Project Brainstorming Is Broken and How To Fix It

“The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
Pablo Picasso

Brainstorming is broken. You know it and I know it. How many unproductive attempts at corporate creativity do we have to sit through before we admit the truth?

Let’s consider a typical session of brainstorming in the project management world.

The project manager calls together the project team, project sponsors and stakeholders. The business problem is outlined at a high level by the project sponsor. Everyone nods in agreement, acknowledging the severity of the problem. What happens next?

The project manager says, “Ok, we need some creative ideas to solve this problem. Let’s have a brainstorming session.” Silence falls on the room for several seconds. Everybody looks down at the table, straining to avoid eye contact.

Once again, the effort to summon creativity to solve a major project has failed.

What’s Broken in Brainstorming

There are two basic problems in project management brainstorming: volume and self-restraint. Grappling with both of these creativity challenges is necessary. If you avoid growing your creativity skills, your professional growth will stall.

Simply demanding more money or staff on your projects whenever you face a roadblock is not good enough

Delivering a large volume ideas is the first quality of brainstorming.

Author and entrepreneur James Altucher recommends writing up at least ten ideas every day. He argues it is a key way to strengthen your creative capabilities. One iteration of the ten ideas approach is to come up with the titles of ten books you want to write. The first five titles are easy; the next five force you to think. Just try it!

Overcoming self-restraint is hard.

Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art,” explores this concept in detail. The Resistance is what Pressfield calls our internal critic. Before contending with critics in the meeting room, it’s important to realize that self-censorship is a powerful foe. Breaking the habit of self-censorship requires regular practice. The creativity exercises in this article will help you to establish a creativity habit and win against the Resistance.

The Purpose (and Limits) of Brainstorming

Our concept of brainstorming dates back to a 1948 book called, “Your Creative Power” by advertising expert Alex Osborn. When I discovered that fact, it all made sense. Advertising agencies face the challenge of producing a large number of ideas for their clients: different images, various headlines and offers are just three of the variables they must manage. Whether you work in advertising or not, this productivity practice can help you.

Brainstorming in the project management context has two objectives. Defining the problem accurately is the first job. Often, a project sponsor may describe a problem in broad terms: “customers are upset because of late product delivery.”

In brainstorming, you can consider numerous aspects to the problem: customer perceptions, managing customer expectations, shipping department efficiency, and relationships with shipping vendors. The second objective is to consider possible solutions. By writing every possible suggestion down, it becomes easier to develop other ideas. Eventually, you may develop ten, twenty or more ideas to address the situation.

Brainstorming does have some limitations and you need to understand the limits of the technique. According to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” brainstorming can discourage introverts from contributing. Conversely, the more outgoing staff on the project team may recoil at the thought of having to sit at their desk and develop new ideas. Brainstorming is a useful creativity tool but please understand it is not for everyone.

Creativity Exercises To Improve Brainstorming

According to the Martin Prosperity Institute, openness to new ideas is a key component of innovation. These creativity activities will help you see new perspectives. If you avoid innovation, sooner or later your organization will face dire, possibly fatal, threats from competitors.

Consider these three exercises to expand the creativity capabilities of your project team. For best results, use only one strategy at a time. If you are new to these exercises, start slowly and explain them to your team. The goal is to help everyone be more creative and achieve better project results.

Exercise 1: Role Play The End Customer

Let’s say that you’re on a project team that is designing new features for your company’s website. The project team has two web developers, a marketing specialist, a public relations expert, a business analyst and the project manager. Each person is likely used to arguing for solutions based on their expertise. This

Here’s a practical example on how to role play the customer. The design firm IDEO was once called upon to assist a hospital. In order to understand the patient experience, a designer checked in as a patient and went through the entire process. In essence, the designer applied the anthropologist’s keen observation skills to capture every aspect of the process.

You can apply this approach in your project by asking someone to play the end customer. Remember – that person has no stake in an organization’s internal politics: they simply want the product or service to be delivered.

Exercise 2: Use Mind Mapping To Develop Multiple Ideas and Possibilities

A mind map is a type of diagram or drawing that makes it possible to express your ideas visually. Tony Buzan, an author and consultant, is generally credited with popularizing the mind map methodology. A mind map is designed to be broad rather than following a linear process. You can create a mind map by hand on a whiteboard for groups. Individuals may prefer to use mind mapping software such as iMindMap.

You can use mind mapping to explore a topic. The example below shows how one can apply a mind map to William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet. As a Shakespeare fan myself, I enjoyed this diagram. If I were to do this mind map, I would add a biographical node to the mind map. Over the course of a brief meeting, a mind map makes it easy for you to understand a situation from numerous dimensions.

mm shakespeare

It’s easy to translate a problem or situation mind map into specific project management tasks and ideas. You can use a mind map to identify stakeholders you may never have thought of before. A mind map also uncovers threats to your project’s success. If you include images and drawings, you may also feel a greater sense of connection to your project’s ultimate results.

Creative Exercise 3: Invite An Outsider To Spark Creativity

“Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” – Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, 1895

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are important to most projects. Depending on your objectives, you could invite experts in database development, online marketing or taxation. Experts can save you from making expensive mistakes. Expert participation also makes it easier to persuade others about the merits of your project.

The blessing of expertise requires a heavy price. Michael Michalko, author of “Thinkertoys: A Handbook Of Business Creativity,” points out the weakness of experts:

“Some social scientists believe that the more expert you become in your field, the more difficult it is to create innovative ideas- or even obvious ones. This is because becoming an expert means you tend to specialize your thinking. Specializing is like brushing one tooth. You get to know that one tooth extremely well, but you lose the rest of them in the process.”

To implement the outsider creativity technique, invite an intelligent friend from a completely different industry. For example, if you’re working on a medical technology project, seek input from an investment professional. They will question basic assumptions for your project team. Those questions will help you see your work in a new way.

Facilitating The Brainstorming Meeting

Follow this step by step process to facilitate a successful brainstorming session the next time you start a new project.

  1. Choose a focus.
    Pick a topic that can be reasonably discussed in twenty minutes or less.
  2. Choose a creativity exercise for warm-up.
    Select one of the creativity exercises outlined above to help your project team get into the brainstorming mindset.

  3. Set the parameters of the brainstorming session.
    Explain that every idea will be written down. All ideas, no matter how strange, are welcome. It’s important to reassure your project team that you are open to a variety of ideas.

  4. Start the brainstorm with an outlandish idea.
    To signal your openness to new ideas, seed the brainstorm with an outlandish idea. Think of an idea that will make your team laugh.
  5. Record the ideas.
    As the brainstorming session draws to a close, make sure to capture the ideas for later analysis. You can ask a team member to take notes, take a photo of the white board or apply other capture techniques.

Maximizing Your Brainstorming Results By Following Up

Have you ever been to a project where plenty of new ideas were developed only to see nothing happen? Lack of follow through is demoralizing to your project team. Don’t let that happen to you. Simply schedule a reminder to revisit the ideas the next week. You can share your reflections at the next project team meeting.

When you drop the ball on follow up, you send the message to your team that creative ideas are not valuable.

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