improvise your brainstorming

Improvising Your Brainstorming

If you’re in a role where creative collaboration is involved, you’re probably all too familiar with brainstorming. And depending on how your organization operates, the exercise of creating new ideas and tackling big problems can either be the best or worst part of your day.

If your brainstorming efforts generally fall to the latter, I have some news for you. There’s a way to make it more productive, more efficient, and (dare I say?) fun!

How? With rules (airhorn noise)!

Like with all good things, to have the best experience, you need some rules – or better yet – clear expectations. As luck would have it, brainstorming aligns perfectly with the rules of improv.

Improv – like Whose Line is it Anyway, Second City, etc., – is a form of comedic entertainment where the plot, characters, and story are made up in the moment. Often improvisers will take a suggestion from the audience and run with it. Part of what makes improv so great is the urgency: every performance is unique, and when it’s over, that’s it. It is spontaneous, entertaining, and fun.

Creating something from nothing can be challenging, and having too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen can hamstring any operation. But that’s the beauty of improv: it can work with casts of all sizes, from two to twenty, because all improvisers follow the same basic set of rules.

If you apply these same rules to brainstorming, you can bring order out of chaos, making it a more enjoyable and productive experience across the board.

Media Cause has some incredible brainstormers – big-picture thinkers who also can break down an idea with surgical precision to bring it to market in any form. We brainstorm cross-office, cross-country, and across teams. It’s a giant collaborative force of nature that could get unwieldy – picture the tornado from the 1996 cinematic classic Twister – but with fewer cows. But it doesn’t because we all follow the following improv-inspired rules:

1. Start with a shared reality.

Before we start any brainstorming endeavor, we lay out what sort of reality we’re working with. What are we trying to accomplish? How will our efforts be measured? What’s known and assumed about the client, the audience, the budget? Granted, we don’t like to let past campaigns or the budget limit us, but it’s nice to know what sandbox we’re jumping into. In our minds, a great idea is a great idea . There is no reason to shoot that great idea down because of preconceptions or assumptions.

This shared reality also keeps us on task. If we have a brilliant idea that doesn’t quite align with the project at hand, we can table it for later instead of going down a rabbit hole of wild and impractical possibilities.

Additionally, starting on the same page allows us to know what part of the brainstorming process we’re in. We generally have three stages of brainstorming:

    • Going wide, exploring any and all ideas
    • Honing in on a few thoughts that we’re excited by
    • Creating nuances from our big ideas to get them to fit particular campaign limitations

2. Create a safe space – all ideas are valid

Brainstorming is messy – especially at the beginning. It needs to be for it to be awesome (and fun)! The quickest way to shut down a brainstorming session is to be a jerk. Shooting down ideas – for any reason – cramps the creative energy and flow.

Being a jerk isn’t pouring coffee on someone’s laptop and calling them a dumdum for having a nugget of an idea. While that *is* a jerk move, we’re talking about the subtle jerk moves: the snarky comments, awkward silences, the eye rolls, the lack of attention. These small moves make a big impact when creating something so fragile like a new idea.

Stay focused, stay positive, stay present. You’ll appreciate it when you’re jumping in.

3. Yes, and!

If you’ve taken any improv classes, or done a corporate team building improv session, you know that it’s all about the “yes, and” philosophy. First, we agree that an idea exists, and then we add to it. This way of thinking allows us to quickly move beyond associating A to B, all the way to A to Z.

We add to the collective idea, allowing it to build, morph and ultimately take a new form.

4. Collaborate, don’t compete. Check your ego.

The moment a nugget of an idea hits the air, it now belongs to the group. There’s personal investment in solving the problem, but not getting the praise. We don’t (or at least try not to) let ego involved.

The team is stronger than the sum of its parts, so by adding to ideas, collaborating, and not forcing a thought for ego’s sake, we consistently turn out better options than had we mulled things over in a silo. 

5. Establish clear and ownable next steps

Just as your brainstorming started with clear guidelines, it should end in the same way. Establish next steps, set up the next meeting and assign any tasks, research, or noodling that needs to happen between now and then. The past session created a big, beautiful mess of ideas. By creating actionable next steps, you’re not letting all of that effort go to waste.

Easy, peasy. Now you have five steps to a fun brainstorm! If you find yourself in a situation where your collaboration goes off the rails, it’s likely someone was breaking one of these rules. We’re working to establish the Better Brainstorming Bureau as a repository for reports of bad brainstormers, but in the meantime, gently nudge them in the right direction (by sharing this blog).



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