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Five Secrets For Braver Brainstorming

Travis Sharp By Travis Sharp

Our most basic human instinct is to stay out of trouble. Cavemen didn’t run toward a strange noise, they ran away from it. In modern times, we’re rarely at risk of getting stomped by a mastodon. But we’re still programmed to make the safe choice, avoid conflict, and stay out of trouble.

This instinct can make brainstorming sessions tentative, uninvested, and anemic. But we’re never going to create brave ideas if we’re unwilling to get into trouble in the first place. So here are my five rules for better brainstorming through bravery.

1. No “No”s. A simple “no” is one of the easiest ways to stay out of trouble (and a word I wish I used more often). But it’s also the quickest way to stifle conversation and get your creative partners to clam up.

So the next time you hear an idea that doesn’t immediately strike you as brilliant, say “yes.” Remember, Post-It Notes started as a failed adhesive; and industry experts once laughed at Google because it wasn’t sticky. These “bad” ideas would have never become “good” ideas if their creators had said “no” the moment someone detected a flaw.

For better brainstorming, be brave and say “yes.” By investing in the idea, your team will be more interested in fixing the flaws and bolstering the good parts of the concept.

2. No “yeah, but”s. “No” has a devious and equally destructive sibling: “Yeah, but.” “Yeah, but” is our secret way of appearing to be supportive: (“Yeah, that’s an interesting idea…”), but still protecting ourselves from potential failure (“…but I tried something like that a few years ago and it didn’t work”).

I get it. You have valid concerns about ideas all the time. That’s cool. Use your concerns to make the idea better. If you tried something similar and it didn’t work, that means you have great insight into some pitfalls to avoid. So turn your “yeah, but” into a “yes, and.” You’ll make your ideas stronger by harnessing your doubts, and fixing them.

You may still reach a dead end as your group brainstorms on an idea. That’s okay, too. Put it on the shelf. You can come back to it later… or not.

3. Don’t think outside the box; build a better box. Few phrases have become as hackneyed as “think outside the box.” When we hear it, we envision wild, explosive, far-out ideas. I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is ideas that have no strategy, communications that aren’t tailored to their audience, and business concepts that ignore the competition. This is what happens when we think outside the box.

I say step up to the plate, do the hard work, and build a better box.

In my role as Creative Director of a brave ad agency, my box is constructed of a deep understanding of my audience, our goals, the communication environment, and our competition. If I’ve done my due diligence, and built my box well, every idea outside the box is wrong. Instead, I think inside my better box. There are still unlimited good ideas in there, only now they’re prepared to succeed.

And of course, I think in the corners.

4. Brainstorm smaller. Ever sat in a boardroom full of 25 people for a brainstorming session? Of course you have. And of course it was a terrible waste of time.

Anyone who’s ever been at a cocktail party knows that people communicate well in groups of three to five. A person alone sits in the corner. Two people can have a lull in conversation. Ten people is a mess, usually led by a couple of loudmouths. But three to five people keep conversation flowing without anyone getting shut out.

Large groups are also havens for safe thinking. It’s easy to hide in a big group (by not contributing), and easy to shoot down bold ideas (by peppering them with minor objections). Small groups force members to contribute and take ownership—there’s no place to hide.

I realize that large group ideation sessions are sometimes unavoidable. Don’t panic. Just break out into small groups as soon as possible, then report back.

5. Drop your agenda. I’m sure I’m not the only one who walks into brainstorming sessions with a couple of ideas in my back pocket. That’s a good thing, unless I bulldoze over everyone else’s ideas in an effort to promote my own.

For brainstorming to work, we all have to be open-minded to the possibilities of every idea. It’s sooo easy to sabotage “someone else’s” idea (we sometimes do it subconsciously). It’s much harder to punt your ego and cultivate every idea like it’s your own precious baby. But that’s the true hallmark of brave thinking.

Every item on this list goes against our basic nature, but I know for a fact that we can overcome the drive to stay out of trouble to reach amazing heights of collaborative creativity. So long as no mastodons are involved.