Most Brainstorming is Worthless when It Could be Awesome!

Consulting Processes

Brainstorming is a very important consulting tool – When You Do It Right! The problem is that most brainstorming sessions could produce so much better results.

The brainstorming process I’m about to describe follows best-practices in neuroscience research. I’ve used it for years on almost every consulting project involving teams. It’s fun and it produces great results.

The first brainstorming session I every facilitated was also the worst. Almost thirty years ago I was a new product manager, had just finished my duty as an Air Force pilot and had entered the business world with a shiny new MBA. The meeting was with a team in a F100 high tech manufacturer. They were trying to diversify from their core strength where they had lost their competitive moat.

I began the meeting by stating, “All ideas will be discussed and evaluated. For the first ten minutes we will keep our ideas to ourselves. At the end of idea generation we will display all ideas and discuss them and set priorities.”

At that point a very loud and forceful individual stated that she wanted to be sure that her idea was discussed first and that some of the other ideas she had heard in previous meetings had serious problems she wanted to talk about first. While everyone else was in agreement with the brainstorming method, she kept trying to ramrod her ideas over other discussions. After a disruptive 30 minutes, we gave up on brainstorming and broke up the meeting.

That was thirty years ago. That division of a Fortune 500 high tech company was sold two years later and went bankrupt the year after that. It had a culture steeped in politics and non-creative chaos. My first venture in the world of big business taught me a great deal about how bad businesses are created.

With the experience I have now I would have handled it by including that person, but discussing with her prior to the meeting how the brainstorming would work, how her ideas would be heard, and how she would have time for a structured critique at the end of the following meeting.

Most Brainstorming Meetings are Worthless!

There’s a basic problem with the way most brainstorming is done.

In most cases the ideas that come out of them are from the loudest person in the room and the HiPPOs in the room. The loudest voices usually overpower the great ideas of those quiet voices in the room. The HiPPOs are the Highest Paid Person or Officer in the room. I’ve been in meetings in a government agency (and I’m sure you’ve seen meetings like this) where literally no one would voice an idea or opinion until the HiPPO gave their opinion or idea. From that point onward all ideas had to be in the same river the HiPPO was swimming in.

(Credit for the term HiPPO goes to Avinash Kuashik and his great site on marketing analytics at

Most business people think they are great at running a brainstorming session, but not many are. See if this sounds like some of the brainstorming sessions you’ve been in,

  • The brainstorming session starts with a wandering discussion and without a clear agreement on objective.
  • Everyone sits around a table, including the CEO, manager, key stakeholder, HiPPOs, etc. and ideas are verbally thrown onto the table by anyone in the meeting. There’s no structure.
  • The first and loudest ideas get the most notice. Soon everyone falls in behind those ideas. Further ideas aren’t heard or developed.
  • No one is assigned to keep precise notes about the ideas and feedback on each idea.
  • There is no grouping or prioritization of ideas.
  • There’s little follow up, responsibility or actions.

Here’s Why Most Brainstorming Sessions Produce Poor Results

Most brainstorming produces poor results and little action. Here’s what happens,

  • Brainstorming needs to a have a single well-defined objective on which everyone focuses their ideas.
  • People are generally uninterested in participating because they don’t feel heard and because past “brainstorming” sessions rambled and resulted in no concrete results or actions.
  • Just throwing ideas out to the room usually means the HiPPO in the room gets heard and the HiPPO’s ideas have the greatest weight.
  • The quiet person at the end of the table never gets heard.
  • People with similar, but slightly different ideas don’t speak up with variations or alternatives.
  • Ideas don’t get listed, developed, or prioritized.
  • And I could keep going and going.

If that sounds like the brainstorming sessions you’ve been in, then you should try a brainstorming method that works and that fits with the latest findings in cognitive psychology.

To read a step-by-step description of a brainstorming method that produces great results, read Best Practice Brainstorming.

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