How to Succeed at Brainstorming
John Storm, Founder of the Brainstorm Network, joins us to talk about how to get the most out of a brainstorming session. Whether ideation or innovation is your goal, you need to know the attitudes, behaviors, and techniques of an effective brainstorming session.
Mike Montague: John, welcome to the show. Tell me a little bit about brainstorming, and why people should be paying attention today.
John Storm: Well, Mike, thanks for having me on the show. I’m always fired up about talking about brainstorming. When you think about why people brainstorm—basically we brainstorm to express our creativity, to solve problems, to make new things, to discover options, to entertain ourselves, to learn things and even to make money.
So, when we think about modern brainstorming, though. Modern brainstorming as a term started with ad executive, Alex Osbourne, who coined the term brainstorming back in 1957. He used it to describe a creative thinking technique that he had developed, where a group of people sit around a conference room table and call out ideas while a facilitator frantically tries to write them down on a whiteboard or flip chart.
He also created a set of rules that are still valid in many situations, but these rules were set to govern up an idea-generation session. These were things like, “Your goal is to go for quantity and to suspend judgment so that you don’t judge while people are talking.” Many of these rules are still valid today, but unfortunately, modern research has shown that his original technique has some serious problems. You’ve probably seen some of this before, but the first one is what we call social pressure. In a group setting, no one wants to look stupid, so often people hold back because they are afraid to throw something out there that they might get made fun of for.
The second problem is more logistic, and I call that staging problems. That’s where you have one facilitator who’s writing down these ideas as frantically as they can, but everyone is waiting and holding themselves back in line. And that’s very inefficient because the facilitator is ultimately the choke point. Rather than facilitating ideas, they’re holding them back.
So, there are a bunch of new methods that offer better alternatives to these two problems, or the original technique of brainstorming. So, nowadays when people say the word “brainstorming,” most of them think, “Oh yeah, I know how to do that,” but usually they’re thinking about the 1950s brainstorming. I like to use brainstorming in a more generic term to identify anything where you’re doing creative problem-solving, creative thinking, ideation, idea generation. It’s all the same thing.
Really, brainstorming is a large assortment of idea-generating activities and techniques that you can use individually or in groups. It also refers to the early stage phase of the innovation process, where you are focused on generating and capturing a large number of ideas.
That’s kind of brainstorming. Let me make one quick segue to innovation because basically brainstorming’s that early stage part. But we oftentimes struggle with even what the word “innovation means” these days because it means so many different things to different people.
I like to think about innovation as the process of bringing an idea to life. I facilitated a session with about 15 CEOs several years ago, and I asked them each to take out a white piece of paper and write down their idea, their definition of innovation. Guess what? Not one of their ideas, one of their definitions, was the same because innovation is another buzzword that we throw out there, like magic dust, hoping that that’s going to make everything great for our company, but it means so many different things to different people.
Mike Montague: So, I love that, especially the problems with brainstorming, like capturing different ideas. I know I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where I’ve thought of three or four ideas, but then you have to hold back and filter them as people are writing, and by the time it gets back around to your turn, you’ve forgotten what the good ones were.
I’ve also seen leaders brainstorm or cherry-pick ideas and stuff, and make it hard to get honest or creative ideas out there that aren’t necessarily good at first blush.
So, let’s talk about attitude and why attitude is a key component of a good brainstorming session.
John Storm: Generally, one of the best attitudes to take toward brainstorming is the word “openness.” Because if you find somebody that is actually open, then that means that they’re available to be thinking new thoughts, to share ideas that they have, to learn. It also means they have an attitude of humility and curiosity because if you’re open, then you say, “You know what? I don’t know it all.” That arrogance and pride are really the major obstacles to most innovation activities, and so really the best attitude is the idea that there is more than one way to do things—this idea of being open to a variety of techniques.
I want to go back to one thing you said there about some of the biggest mistakes that you’ve seen. There are a couple of key ones that leaders often make when they’re brainstorming. The first one is, you were eluding to it, that the leader of the manager is cherry-picking ideas or maybe they’re asking for ideas, but they’re not open to anybody else’s suggestion. They just want you to confirm their idea. That is a major choke in any brainstorming situation. People can smell that a mile away. If you have strong ideas as a leader, then move forward with those ideas. Don’t try to couch it in brainstorming.
Another little mistake that people make is what I call the lack of metrics, where you have very little clarity around your measures about how you’re going to evaluate these ideas and when you’ve asked people for them. Because if you ask somebody for their idea, there’s an expectation that you might do something with them—not necessarily their idea, but that there is going to be some action. So, I use an acronym called “ATNA,” which stands for “All Talk, No Action,” to describe mini-brainstorming sessions. You definitely want to try to take some action after any brainstorming session.
Then the last big mistake people make is when the boss tries to facilitate the session themselves. That’s just generally a no-no because people hold back, or suck up, or do everything but try to productively generate ideas that could be thrown out there for everyone else to piggyback on and try to turn it into everyone’s idea, rather than just the boss’s idea or what they think the boss might want.
So, there are a couple of thoughts about attitude, mainly openness.
Mike Montague: You transitioned over to behavior for me a little bit when you started talking about action, and the things that you will take after that. But let’s talk a little bit about what you actually do in a good brainstorming session. What are the steps or the plan of action in a session?
John Storm: Okay, well the behavior, I think my favorite word for behavior in brainstorming is the word “flexibility.” Because if you have a flexible approach to things, it is a little different than openness. Openness leads you to where you can experiment, and experimentation is flexibility. In that experimentation, guess what’s going to happen? Sometimes, you’re going to fail. It’s iteration. You try something; it works. You try something else; it doesn’t work.
This idea that we’re so scared of failure at times—it keeps us from being able to be flexible and being able to experiment. You should be using, much as Thomas Edison did, with each of your experiments as an opportunity to learn from that failure. So, you fail, then you dust off, and get up, and learn from your behavior from your mistake. So, I think flexibility is the key there on the behavior front.
Mike Montague: I like that. Then, I know you’ve got a bunch of good techniques, so let’s get into some of that. What are some of the techniques, tools, tricks, or hacks that you would recommend for improving your brainstorming sessions?
John Storm: Okay, so I like to divvy up techniques into two categories. The first is what I call “capturing techniques,” which is how to capture the ideas in the first place. Obviously, a flip chart or whiteboard can work, but you can use index cards, you can use digital, you can use text, or you can use websites. You need to kind of mix it up. I usually like to start with blank paper when I first just start getting people thinking because they’re thinking on their own. So, that’s how I usually like to start. Then, they’ve got a blank sheet that has a bunch of ideas that they’ve come up with. Then we build off that using some other capturing.
The second category is called “sparking techniques.” These are really where I love doing … These are ideas that, or techniques that, help you come up with different ideas, which help you see things differently. That’s where a lot of people need help. I’ve either discovered or invented, at least 30 different interesting ways to spark ideas. I’ll just share one with you.
The category is called “role-storming.” R-O-L-E, as in taking on different roles. This technique has lots of different variations. I think the one I’ll share with you today is basically called the WWXD technique, which is a version originated by the WWJD, What Would Jesus Do, movement where you actually pick someone—in this case Jesus, or a hero, an innovator, a company, a cartoon character—and you ask yourself, “Okay in light of our problem, or the challenge that we face today, what would X do? What would anybody do? What would Sandler do? What would Oprah, Trump, Steve Jobs, P.T. Barnum do?”
When you think about sales ideas, these are some big salespeople. What would these people do? Each of them has some different techniques about how they come up with sales ideas. So, the WWXD technique within role-storming is one of my favorites.
Mike Montague: Yeah, that’s really cool, and I think it does get you thinking about the problem in a new light or from a new direction. So, I appreciate that. Anything else that you want to add on this, or how do we tie all three of these together—attitude, behavior and technique—and just make sure that we get the most out of our session and come out with value instead of frustration?
John Storm: How about three words? Humble, open, flexibility.
If people were humble, then that generally means that they’re open and that leads to flexibility, and I think if you can tie those three together, you’ll find your attitude, your behavior and your technique work up in a positive way to produce a lot of good ideas.
Mike Montague: I like that. We’re talking with John Storm of the Brainstorm Network, and John, other than having a name like a Marvel superhero, how did you get into brainstorming?
John Storm: Well actually, good question. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, where my dad was always coming home from work talking about, “Oh, I’ve got a new million-dollar idea.” So, that was fun around the dinner table because he had a lot of crazy ideas. Most of them were pretty crazy, but he did have a couple that turned into million-dollar ideas over the years, and then a few that he missed out on that could have been. So, that kind of environment.
Then, he and my uncle started a business called Storm Lures. We were in the fishing lure business for about 34 years, and so I ended up going to work there for about 14 years, and that’s when I learned how to brainstorm. I was the marketing director, and so when you’re coming up with new product ideas and new ways to get e
Then, the company was sold, and I got a chance to start over. And I founded the Brainstorm Network and then began refining many of the techniques that we used then and inventing a bunch of news ones to try to get into the brainstorming world. Fortunately, my last name works pretty well with brainstorming, so I didn’t have to change it. Mom and dad gave me that one.
Mike Montague: That’s great. So, at this point in your career, how do you define success?
John Storm: Mike, that’s a great question because I think so many times we have this one image of success being money, and I think what we’ve really been seeing is a renaissance in our society, that each of us has to somewhat define success for ourselves.
For me, success comes more from a faith standpoint, in that success for me is to become who I was created to be. That ultimately leads to hopefully hearing the words “well done” when I’m done with this life and begin my next one. So, success is trying to make sure that I’m doing things and being the kind of person that I was created to be.
Mike Montague: I like that, and what was your biggest lesson learned or hurdle that you had to get over in your career?
John Storm: That’s a good one. Well, I’m on career 2.0 right now. So, I think in this career, the biggest challenge has been learning, to some degree, how to operate without a huge team. I had a pretty good team when I was at Storm Lures, and there are some advantages to solopreneurship, and yet I’ve had to try to come up with other ways to be able to find teams. And with my current business, more as a solo consultant, there are just some challenges that go along with that. I think that’s probably been my biggest challenge at this point.
Mike Montague: Good, and if you had a superpower and an origin story about how you got that, what do you lean on when you need to be successful?
John Storm: Well, origin story—man, that sounds like a Hollywood question. That is good. I think it would probably still go back to my faith issues, of just looking ultimately at the things that are important in life, and the fact that I think that we were created to be and do good things. Each of us was given gifts and talents to be able to share with the world and with our clients and families, and ultimately focus on the things that matter.
Mike Montague: Yeah, I think that is a great understanding, and I don’t know that we have had faith as an answer for this one, but I think that is a good answer.
John Storm: Well, I know this isn’t a religious show, and I’m not a religious person. I’m more of a spiritual person, and yet certainly it guides the things that I do, even as I try hard to add value to clients that may not necessarily agree with me on those issues. I’m trying to be a good person and focus on their needs and what it is that they need and want to do to take their business, and hopefully their lives, to the next level. That’s what I need to be focused on.
Mike Montague: Do you have a favorite Sandler Rule?
John Storm: Oh, Mike, you know I do because I did some prepping, having read several of the Sandler books. What I chose for today is #48, which is to recognize “A life without risk is a life without growth.” So, I just think it’s normal, part of our human nature, to get scared and fearful at times, and yet continue to put ourselves in positions where we can learn, and grow, and risk, and stretch. And sometimes that is definitely going to involve an element of risk, rather than just being stuck in the ways that we are. In fact, I created a cool little tool. In fact, I put it in our brainstorming resources kit.
It was called the “Stuck-o-Meter,” which is a crazy tool. It’s a self-assessment for you to try to figure out where and how you’re stuck. So, I think Sandler Rule #48 ties in with that. Because if you’re stuck, it means that you’re not willing to take very many risks. So, that might be something people would enjoy.
Mike Montague: Yeah, and I think it does tie into today’s topic because really a brainstorming session or innovation without risk is innovation without any growth or change.
John Storm: Well, it’s risky. Yeah, if you think about a normal brainstorming session, it’s risky to try to think of, to put yourself out there and throw out ideas that you hadn’t necessarily thought of before, or put your thoughts out there in public. I haven’t been a very prolific blogger, but I have great admiration for people like you that are writing blog posts. Because when you click “send” or “post,” man, you’re putting your thoughts out there for the world to potentially criticize. That’s a risky deal because we live in a world that’s pretty hateful sometimes. So, just being a blogger is going to be a life of risk. Anyway, so congratulations to you.
Mike Montague: Well, thanks on that. I think it’s all just like we teach in all the success principles. It becomes adjusting your comfort zone and becoming more used to those levels of risk as you learn and grow. I appreciate that, but let’s wrap up brainstorming for everybody. Put it in a package, in a nice big bow. What is one attitude you would like people to have leaving the podcast?
John Storm: I’m going to stick with openness, Mike.
Mike Montague: And one key behavior to do?
John Storm: Flexibility.
Mike Montague: And the best technique to use?
John Storm: I still think that the role-storming technique is one that people can really dig into because there are so many fun ways to do that to spark new ideas.
Mike Montague: That is awesome. So, why don’t you tell people how they can find you, and anything that you’d like to ask of our audience.
John Storm: Well, I always like to hear what challenges people are having out there, and so my offer today is a free offer of a brainstorming resources kit. It’s just going to be a bunch of tools that I put together to send out for free. The way that you get that is to send me an email at [email protected].
That’s also a great place that if people have challenges out there in the world of their brainstorming, or innovation initiatives, I’d love to take questions and see if there’s anything that I can do to help. It might just be some things that I’ve already been through that I could share. So, my asking of the audience, if people have challenges, and they want to share those with me, I’d love to see if there’s a way that I can help. Same email: [email protected]. If you put “Sandler podcast” in the subject line, I’ll know exactly what to send you for the brainstorming kit.
So, I did love to hear … Also, I learn from other people all the time. So, if you’ve got a technique that is your favorite, that I didn’t mention … I just mentioned one today, but if you’ve got some tips or suggestions, I’m always open to learning and seeing new and better ways to brainstorm.
Mike Montague: John, thanks for being on the show, and once again you can email him at [email protected]. Put “Sandler podcast” in the subject line for your free brainstorming resources kit.
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