There are three words on a work invite I dread most: Company All Hands. Running a close second is: Brainstorm. Usually what this means is: “let’s park ourselves in a dull room, crack jokes for the first 10 minutes while some poor soul tries to find working whiteboard markers, get insufficient background for the task, be insufficiently prepared to address the task and then throw out a bunch of implausible ideas that anyone with an unlimited supply of Diet Coke and Chex Mix could have thought of.” All while being positive and supportive of everyone else, no matter how hare-brained or boring the idea is.
This is not to say I don’t think there are good ideas to be found, or that people can come upon them in a collaborative way, or that the pitch room could be a positive place. I believe in all of these things. But I’ve never seen the typical agency brainstorm as a path to get there.
At The Glue, we still use the word brainstorm on occasion, but our structure is very different. First of all, anyone who would be invited to the brainstorm is invited to the kick-off. That means they get all the materials, they are in the stakeholder meeting, they can (and should) ask questions of the team leads and the client. The next part is very important: they prepare before the brainstorm. They look at competitors, they bone up on the subject matter, they study affinity products or messages, they think about real-world concepts that tie into the idea. And they come up with something to present.
There is only one thing more difficult than staring at a blank page, or in our case, a blank whiteboard: staring at it with a half a dozen colleagues. Instead, we ask one, two, or three people who will be the leads executing the project to actually come up with several ideas to present to the group. Those ideas, while not fully baked, should have at least a few threads that connect it to reality. They don’t need to be finished comps or wires or prototypes — a sketch on the back of something is just fine — but there absolutely needs to be thought and consideration behind it.
Then the group can react and build. Most of the time people compliment one another. But if someone wants to point out a flaw, or better still, a way something could be improved, that’s great. Not being right is how we learn to get better. Or conversely, we learn how to defend a great idea. No one needs to go out of their way to be a jerk, but on our team at least, we can all handle, and maybe even like, getting feedback.
So far the process is working. How do I know? Because people say they want to have more brainstorms not fewer. Now that’s a truly new idea.