I, and probably you, have believed deeply in the power of brainstorms. I believed so much that I made it part of the initial loop of the Digital Engagement Cycle. The core Brainstorming and Planning to get your digital strategy going. But it’s always been hard to let go of how strange it was when I searched for “best practices for brainstorms.” Nothing definitive came up. I trust science; I know science also changes, but this must have been studied and refined; I never found anything conclusive.
I came across this article: Office Brainstorms Are a Waste of Time, and so, of course, I was inquisitive. I was unsettled and affirmed at the same time. I had made brainstorming part of core digital strategy and training. But here it was from the Harvard Business Review.
But why doesn’t brainstorming work? There are four explanations from HBR:
Social loafing: There’s a tendency – also known as free riding – for people to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than alone.
Social anxiety: People worry about other team members’ views of their ideas. This is also referred to as evaluation apprehension. Similarly, when team members perceive that others have more expertise, their performance declines.
Regression to the mean: This is the process of downward adjustment whereby the most talented group members end up matching the performance of their less talented counterparts.
Production blocking: No matter how large the group, individuals can only express a single idea at one time if they want other group members to hear them. Studies have found that the number of suggestions plateaus with more than six or seven group members, and that the number of ideas per person declines as group size increases.
Further from the Wall Street Journal Article
“You do not get your best ideas out of these freewheeling brainstorming sessions,” says Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School. “You will do your best creative work by yourself.”
Iyengar has compiled academic research on idea generation, including a decade of her own interviews with more than a thousand people, into a book called “Think Bigger.” It concludes that group brainstorming is usually a waste of time.
Here is a bit on why brainstorming can be good, but not for the ideas.
Meg Amis, a marketing director in Philadelphia, says she loves the energy of huddling in a room to slap sticky notes on a wall or scribble on a whiteboard. Regardless of whether everyone participates or a gathering yields something actionable, the process can set an inclusive tone and rally support for a project, she contends.
“With anything that requires multiple people’s buy-in, it’s better to start with a brainstorming session because then everybody feels like they’re part of it,” she says.
So where does that leave us?
We are social change agents working on issues and trying to improve the world. We almost always have fewer resources than the corporations, institutions we are trying to change, or resources needed to communicate to our audiences. Several vital takeaways help you leave the brainstorms behind in moving your strategy forward.
Creative and strategic planning.
Actual creative planning comes from understanding your goals and the strategies you can apply. It is about having the creative and strategic capacity to execute your plans. There are a few essential items to think about here.
Creative approaches: You might feel or know that you must create more creative content to reach your audiences. Or need a more creative strategy to reach targets for your digital campaign. But the truth is you might be the wrong group of people to brainstorm in the first place. Now, I’m not suggesting you even brainstorm.
Creative strategy. Here are a few essentials that you’ll need to understand for the creative process:
- Overall goals of the organization
- Objectives of the discrete campaign
- How to leverage different platforms, tactics, and channels
- Audiences that are important to the campaign
- Creative content and how to align it to the audiences and the platforms
There is a good chance that a small set of people in your organization understand these pieces. The truth is that they should be gathering the information and applying their knowledge to a strategic plan. If your organization doesn’t have the strategic capacity to do this, you need to look at professional development or outside support. Your best solution might be bringing in an agency or consultant to help you plan or run your strategic campaign.
Strategic meetings can make all of the difference. The person or team in-house or the external support will only be the expert on some things. But you can forgo the brainstorming and instead plan strategic meetings where people with the right pieces of knowledge give their input. The data says smaller meetings with key people are better for everyone’s time.
Here are a few critical kinds of strategic creative meetings you can have:
Audience Persona Workshoping: These are focused workshops the entire organization can engage in, held with a small team, or even a single person can workshop. Audience Personas are about understanding the target audiences for your digital campaign and the content that can engage or inform them.
Design Feedback Sessions: Creative design, like the aspects of a campaign, logo, or other creative items, is strategic but also about aesthetic choice. These sessions can be a place to share creative briefs and have a precise way to capture feedback. Don’t let it be just everyone sharing their feelings in a way they think their design feelings will be the chosen one.
Website Input Sessions: We’ve all experienced websites we love and hate. It can be helpful to coach your teams through how to bring and share items from other websites and why. It might not work for your website, but getting various input can be helpful. It can also lead to teaching moments about the vast difference in capacity for web infrastructure big orgs have and even more expansive in the for-profit world.
Tactical Planning Sessions: Brainstorms still lead to many asks for virality. Ooph, but what people are asking for is scale. By scale, we mean reach and reach needs target audiences and capacity to reach those audiences. These sessions can give space for the ask for virality so you can pivot to helping them understand reach, capacity, and audiences. It’s a chance to take the creative briefs, goals, and targets and help everyone know what you need to align what you need. As an organization, these are the 3 Pillars of Organizational Digital Strategy: Strategy,
Capacity, and Infrastructure.
Brainstorming for buy-in? You can see the piece above about it. There are other quotes on where people host them so people “can feel” like they have given input. It is disingenuous and wastes one of your most precious resources: time. Buy-in is essential, and getting people aligned is critical. But bring people in on discrete meetings where they can share more valuable input. Share strategic briefs and plans with larger teams and show them how they can play a part.
I promise you that having a clear vision and plan to make a change will motivate people more than engaging them in brainstorms just for buy-in. Trust your team, ditch the brainstorms, and move to a creative and strategic planning model.