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Startups: Here’s How to Brainstorm Better, According to Science
Seed-stage startups lack a history of proof but offer plenty of promise. And part of the attempt to fulfill that promise means generating new and innovative ideas, or perhaps scrappy ones that help push the ball forward bit by bit. Regardless of the need at your particular startup, brainstorm meetings seem to be widely accepted as the best way to generate those new and/or scrappy approaches to execution. And that’s a huge problem.
You see, all the science behind idea generation — and there’s a ton of it — says that what we typically do at our companies is completely backwards. It’s broken, and it’s poorly equipped for generating ideas in both volume (total number) and quality (effectiveness when executed).
What Does the Science Say?
In her book, Creative Conspiracy, Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management cites dozens of studies that suggest that the business world runs its brainstorm meetings entirely backwards. These studies show time and time again that, despite our love for “jumping in a room to brainstorm,” individuals are actually far more successful in generating both quantity and quality of ideas compared to groups.
In other words, we’re wasting tons of time and generating worse ideas all at once. No matter how badly we want this NOT to be true — no matter how many feel-good meetings we cite from past our current companies — these conclusions are pulled from decades of scientific research.
And really, the fact that groups aren’t terribly effective at brainstorming should be obvious to us. After all, there’s a long list of shortcomings that we’ve all experienced in these types of meetings:
- Talkative teammates monopolize the conversation.
- Pragmatic colleagues discourage bold ideas because they’re already raising objections and thinking about implementation issues.
- Ideas proposed earlier in the meeting garner more favor from the group, as many studies also show. Consensus thus builds around an idea’s recency, not its merit.
- Teams are constantly stressed and distracted about the rest of their work, leading them to check laptops or refresh inboxes rather than achieve deeper, more proactive thought and creative flow during the brainstorm session.
And at the end of it all, at best, you’re left with a pile of disconnected ideas without a plan to make sense of them, let alone execute them.
As the science says, individuals are great for generating ideas, and groups — still important to use — are best for judging them.
In a telling quote in the book, Thompson writes, “True collaboration often calls for periods of focused, independent work, interspersed with periods of intense, structured team interaction.” Thus, individuals should be tasked with generating ideas separately and alone, reserving the group time for presenting, judging, improving, and selecting ideas.
But now that we know this, a new problem arises: Who has the time or mental focus to sit alone at their desk and brainstorm ideas while avoiding the distractions of other work? Who would dedicate that kind of introspective time to a meeting that’s later in the day or week? We like to “jump in a room” because it places the task of idea generation neatly onto our calendars in one finite block. But now we’re supposed to dedicate even MORE time to this?
So while it’s easy to accept the science behind good brainstorming in theory, it’s much more difficult to actually change our behavior. Luckily, the solution — the “app for that” — is the almighty, ubiquitous, incredibly advanced technology known as the sticky note. And here’s how to use it.
We now know that individuals should spend time generating ideas on their own, while groups should be used to critique, improve, and select the ideas. We also know that, in all likelihood, we’re stuck with the old muscle memory of “blocking time” to “jump in a room.”
So here’s how to balance both of these realities and still create more successful and repeatable brainstorm sessions:
Step 1: Establish a single meeting leader.
This should be the case in every meeting, but in this process, the leader fulfills a particular, critical role. (For the rest of these steps, let’s assume that you’re the meeting leader.)
Step 2: At the start of your meeting, write or display a problem statement on the wall.
This statement is the reason you’re meeting. Preferably, write it from the point of view of output or tactics, not results. So rather than write “close more deals” you should write something like “produce content to enable sales to close more deals.” This grounds the brainstorm in much more tangible realities, though it’s understandable that this won’t always be possible.
Step 3: Give each individual a stack of sticky notes.
Provide way more sticky notes than you think they’ll need. It seems trivial, but this actually matters since, in the next step, you’ll instruct them to write as many ideas as they can without hesitation. Too few sticky notes can cause hesitation and actually hurt the number or even quality of ideas generated.
Step 4: Ask the individuals to write in the following way.
Tell the group that everyone in the room, including you, will now take a specific amount of time to write as many ideas as possible to solve the problem statement on the board. Write only one idea per sticky note.
Remind them that each idea should aim to solve the problem statement, and that they should not worry about implementation or whether an idea is original and unique. In this step, the goal is volume.
(Regarding timekeeping, I like to tell the group they have two minutes then give a 30-second warning. If I notice that everyone is still frantically writing, I’ll just delay that warning, letting two minutes pass without them knowing. The time constraint is a game mechanic to promote a sense of urgency and encourage stream of consciousness in the idea generation rather than careful, measured judgment of each idea. So it actually matters that you don’t continually add time — hence my slight secrecy.)
As an aside, if you can’t tell already, this process of writing down ideas actually helps you obey the theory of brainstorming while also avoiding the need to ask others to brainstorm alone at their desks (where they’re less likely to do so). By writing, they’re each technically generating ideas alone, which the research suggests works well.
Step 5: Collect each sticky note, one at a time.
When time is up, ask for one volunteer to start reading each of her sticky notes. At the same time, tell the group that everybody will have a chance to read their ideas. I like saying that out loud because your first volunteer is typically the same eager teammate who dominates most meetings, so your quick disclaimer can relieve frustration in others. Everybody will be heard. Nobody will dominate. That’s the goal.
Here’s the process to collect these sticky notes:
- Have the first volunteer read her first note, which you then place on the board.
- Next, ask if anyone else had identical or very similar ideas. If so, group those sticky notes with the first one.
- Have the volunteer read her second idea and repeat the question. In doing so, you move through this person’s stack of notes and group similar ideas along the way. (Place unique ideas apart from each other.)
- Once the first volunteer exhausts her stack, move on to the next person, and so forth, until no teammates or sticky notes remain.
- During this process, it’s critical to avoid any judgment of ideas, so make it clear that there will be time to evaluate the ideas later. The goal is not only to surface all the ideas around the table but to avoid any vocalized support, positive or negative, that could influence the rest of the meeting.
Step 6: Give a final call for ideas.
Occasionally, you’ll get some really good ideas as a result of all the inspiration you just stuck on the board. Do a final call for any new ideas that might have emerged. Each should be written on a sticky note and placed on the wall.
Step 7: Use the group format to vote, improve, and select the best ideas.
You’re now in a much better place than during the typical (and broken) open brainstorm discussion. And NOW is the time for the group to finally shine. It’s time to judge these ideas.
There are two ways I’ve seen this work. The first is a straightforward vote whether out loud or by asking individuals to place hash marks on their three favorite ideas. You also could email a survey afterwards, but it’s preferable to do this evaluation when the context is fresh.
The other approach feels more like our usual group brainstorming, wherein you open up the floor. What do they like? What do they dislike? What patterns do they see based on the groups of sticky notes? Are there any tactics that seem popular? Why? What can be improved there?
Remember, the goal of the group discussion is no longer idea generation but idea judgment — an area where studies show the group actually excels. You’ll now poke, prod, bite, disagree, tear down, build up, and ultimately narrow or outright select from the list of ideas. In our traditional brainstorm sessions, this process begins immediately and often clutters the discussion the entire time. In reality, we should wait until we get to this step.
Perhaps the best by-product of this process and this step is that, in the end, the energetic teamwork we so idolize actually shines more than ever. Rather than teammates pointing at each other or defending their ideas to their teammates — which, while energizing, can be slightly demoralizing — you’re now all focused on something tangible up on the board that you objectively want to improve and select. And it’s all in the name of pushing the company forward.
There will always be a need to brainstorm new ideas internally, even in organizations who are experts in gathering actual customer feedback directly. At the seed stage, you need to generate plenty of new, unique, or non-scalable ways to scrap your way to traction and growth. And as your company scales, you’ll start to segment into more job function-specific teams, each of which will have their own separate ideas for department- or company-wide problems.
But at the end of the day, we can’t simply “hop in a room” to generate meaningful solutions. While this sticky note approach isn’t new, we’re still bad at adopting this and need to pay more attention to the data.
So think of it this way: The deck is already stacked against a startup from the very beginning. Ignoring years of scientific research needlessly adds yet another card. The choice should be clear: Obey the data.
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