Michele Weldon

You've done this before. Everyone crams in a conference room with a whiteboard and starts throwing out ideas. Most of them are awful and have nothing to do with anything. "There are no bad ideas," someone says. Unless, of course, it's a really bad idea.

Brainstorming ideas can be more than getting everyone in a room to start throwing spitballs at a wall to see what sticks. As a leader, you need to put as much time into refreshing your creative side as you do to corresponding with colleagues and clients.

“Creativity isn’t what we think it is,” Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCR, principal of applied research and consulting for Steelcase, writes in Work Design. “It’s not just teams coming up with wild ideas in brightly colored rooms with plenty of post-it notes and toys on the table to aid inspiration. It’s the ebb and flow between different types of work, states of mind and perspectives.”

Despite misconceptions about how to make a brainstorm meeting and why brainstorming is a strong decision tool, creativity can be positively nurtured. Here are definitive steps to make sure creative brainstorming becomes a powerful source of idea generation.

1. Bring creative pursuits to the office.

Hold meetings outside on a beautiful day, take a company field trip to a museum or have a company book club where your monthly book suggestions have a theme of creativity. Demonstrate to your team that you are open to new ideas and that you are willing to entertain new ways of looking at the world and your work. Arrange for a speaker to come in for a brown bag lunch session on new ideas, go to a book signing or lecture at a local university on topics related to your field of work.

“In your everyday life, you may find yourself driven to make sense of the world around you through means you don’t immediately relate to creation. Journaling, talking openly with someone, meditation, mentoring others, are all good ways to make sense of the world,” writes Tanner Christensen, founder of Creative Something. "These acts also serve a powerful purpose for unlocking creativity, as they give us the perspective from which we build our ideas."

2. Create a space for creative thinking. 

An ideal work environment is visually appealing, comfortable and creative. Beyond colorful group areas or personal office space, some design thinkers call for a third place, where creativity can be explored.

“The third place provides another option in office design not only for work but for your employees as well as those who thrive in an environment that doesn't feel like an office," Jeff Pochepan writes for Inc. "By adding a third place, you're offering a comfortable, inviting, and relaxed gathering spot ripe for collaboration and conversation."

3. Invite suggestions and honor creative ideas.

This can be as simple as a suggestion box or leaving time at the end of every staff meeting for new ideas and topics to discuss. Be sure not to be dismissive or condescending of anyone’s efforts to offer improvements in process or procedures. “This is not the time to say, ‘that’s not possible,’ or, ‘we don’t have the money for that.’ Squelch the negative talk and stick to generating ideas,” writes Kelly King, women’s ministry specialist at Lifeway.

4. Be playful. 

This doesn't mean you do not work hard and produce what needs to be done. Nor does it mean you need to install a ping pong table in the lobby. Instead, invite playfulness into free thinking time to foster creativity.  “Companies, such as Google, NASA, and Coca-Cola, are catching on to the idea of using bricks to communicate," Melissa Chu writes on Medium. "In their sessions, participants are expected to use Lego pieces to answer a prompt given by the facilitator. The 'unplugged’ approach, which relies on your hands to create, has become a popular way of brainstorming ideas that are hard to express otherwise."

Who'd have thought that Lego pieces could be a functional business tool? Use this example to determine if there are is an atypical, creative brainstorm method you can use with your group.

5. Observe keenly.

When you are acutely aware of your workplace patterns and culture, you see solutions more clearly and know what innovation is required to achieve them. Take notice of how people work together and if similar comments pop up frequently from different team members. Notice if one member of the team solves a problem successfully and how she did it, and notice if another team member cannot approach a similar project with the same outcomes.

A creative solution may arrive just by being vigilant in how you observe. Listen. Read body language. See the signs in front of you. “Being observant is something that can make you look like the smartest in the room, and something that can be highly beneficial to you in other ways too," Stanley C. Loewen writes for Health Guidance. "Noticing little details gives you more information to work with and thus helps you to make better more informed decisions.”

6. Brainstorm with purpose.

When it comes to brainstorming sessions, present a clear goal to your team and a structured framework on how to get there. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, writes that open-ended brainstorming is a losing proposition. “There are several reasons for this productivity loss, as academics call it. For one, when people work together, their ideas tend to converge," Markman writes. "As soon as one person throws out an idea, it affects the memory of everyone in the group and makes them think a bit more similarly about the problem than they did before.”

Instead of random lobbing of haphazard thoughts, directing the creative process is essential. Markman advises a brainstorm technique that he calls "the 6-3-5 method,” when “six people sit around a table and write down three ideas. They pass their stack of ideas to the person on their right, who builds on them. This passing is done five times, until everyone has had the chance to build on each of the ideas. Afterward, the group can get together to evaluate the ideas generated.”

7. Focus on what makes a great idea.

In the group discussion process of brainstorming, have participants deconstruct why a suggested idea is a "good idea." Highlight its attributes; perhaps the idea is simple to implement, perhaps it saves money, perhaps it's an easy problem solve, perhaps it is a natural expansion of an idea or product that already is doing well. Highlight why something is working and why it may be implemented. Otherwise, it will feel like a popularity game. Make sure you acknowledge and honor the ideas that need to be developed further, given more thought or explained in a new way. Never say an idea is bad. Instead, use it as a group problem-solving activity and brainstorm ways to make "bad ideas" better.

8. Embrace diversity.

Having a diverse team of employees and colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds, races and interests can foster the creative brainstorming process. In order to successfully harness this creative power, the group must focus on understanding each other.

"It starts with better understanding ourselves through assessing and improving our level of cultural intelligence, by which we mean our knowledge and understanding of key cultural similarities and differences," writes Salma El-Shurafa, Executive Coach and founder of The Pathway Project, in Your Training Edge. "Those with a high CQ are attuned to the values, beliefs, behaviors and body language of people from different cultures, and they use this knowledge to interact with others successfully.”

9. Brainstorm with yourself and your team often.

This should not be an annual exercise. Weekly is a lot, semi-annually too much, monthly might be just right. You can also brainstorm with yourself — write down your goals and keep an inspiration journal so that your ideas and internal innovator is always “on.” Strong women leaders inhabit fresh ideas each day. “They try to do something each and every day to push themselves forward, even if it's simply reading up on what’s happening in the world, brainstorming with a creative colleague or learning a new word,” writes Brendan Della Casa in Your Tango.

As Tracy Brower writes, “creativity isn’t only about group collaboration. It also requires individual focus. Exposure to diverse perspectives and the thinking of the group is important, but so is the time for quiet reflection and the incubation of ideas.”

10. When something doesn't work — fix it.

Group work should not mean some people work hard and some do nothing. “Collaboration is a great way of using collective knowledge to create greater output and be more efficient," Jessica Thiefels writes in Talent Development. "Unfortunately, this collective knowledge sharing can cause quiet or disengaged employees to rely on co-workers.” So perhaps create a small brainstorm group that will lead the brainstorming sessions. “With fewer people at the table, you can focus on who actually needs to be involved, who will offer the greatest value and who can focus on other projects.“

Creativity can be a glorious process and space for brainstorming, innovation and solution-finding. It can also be chaotic. As Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, espouses in her Nine Leadership Power Tools, “carpe the chaos.” The fifth power tool states that “change creates chaos... But chaos also means boundaries become more fluid. That’s when people are open to new ways of thinking, to innovation, and to new roles for women. Carpe the chaos, for in chaos is opportunity.” 


A version of this post originally ran in Take The Lead. Michele Weldon is an author, journalist and editorial director of Take The Lead. She is a senior leader with The OpEd Project, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, mom of three sons and her most recent book is "Escape Points: A Memoir."