The 90-Second Brainstorm

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Let’s start with the bad news.

There’s no such thing as a 90-second brainstorm. And even if there was, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

A brainstorm is part work, part inspiration, part thinking, part tension, and part freedom. Few successful ones are shorter than 30 minutes.

Hopefully, some of the perspectives on brainstorming sessions and the tips we use at our firm can help you, too.

Step one: What’s a brainstorm? No, you don’t need to go Google it, I just did. And the simplest answer I found is: a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems.

Now let’s break that down, to see what useful secrets we can extract.

“Spontaneous.” A brainstorm needs to be conducive to finding new avenues, trying new things, coming up with stuff that wasn’t in front of us 30 or 60 minutes ago. Spontaneity leads to meetings that flow with a good dynamic and freedom to say what comes to mind. We’re not judging, but creating.

“Group discussion.” If we invite seven people to a room, and only two talk, something’s not working. Are they all comfortable tossing around raw ideas out loud? Do we have the right team for the discussion? Are we leaving space for everyone’s ideas and opinions?

“Produce ideas.” If we simply want to hang out with members of our team, we could go for lunch. There’s a reason we sit together on a brainstorm: to generate ideas, the more the better. Good, bad, complex, for now, for later … Keep them coming. In the middle of the brainstorm, they’re all valid.

“Ways.” Whether we are looking for concepts, names, ideas, or executions, we shouldn’t use the meeting to analyze — at all. We’re not searching for specific words and images just yet. The goal of brainstorming is to open new avenues and find new ways, not to dissect them.

“Solving problems.” This is where the definition ends — but it’s really where it all starts. Do people know what we’re trying to achieve? Is it clear, or just clear for the person who put the meeting on the calendar? If things are blurry, you’ll end up having a Q&A session, not a brainstorm.

Without bad ideas there would be no good ideas.

Let’s look at brainstorming with an analogy. Ideas during a brainstorming session are like steps on a ladder. None is more important than the other, because without stepping on the previous one, we’d never go higher. It’s a process. And we need them all. We need all those ideas to support each other, and to inspire new thoughts. Nothing is dumb, it all helps.

You can think about a house of cards, too. What would happen if you took one of the bad, dumb, crazy cards out of the base? Exactly.

Think of these images the next time you’re inclined to judge an idea in a brainstorm.

A few tips we use ourselves.

Who should be involved? Consider people with strong expertise, but also people that bring a fresh perspective. What’s the point of having six or eight mini-me’s around the table?

Preparation. Provide participants the time to read background materials, ask questions, and understand the purpose of the brainstorming in advance. It would also help if they agreed with the initial thinking. (It’s not easy to brainstorm ideas around a strategy you don’t believe in.)

Roles. Generally speaking, besides participants and a note taker, it’s ideal to have a moderator. Someone ready with ideas for sparking other ideas, and a good sense of when to pause, when to build, or simply try something else.

Different ideas, different ways to get them. You don’t hear about novelists, playwrights, or painters holding brainstorms. Their ideas come up in solitude. Some people are better in front of their keyboards than thinking out loud. Try inviting them to write ideas down first, prior to the meeting.

Comfort is key. A brainstorm is to explore new ways of doing things. Inevitably, that means you’ll sort through potentially embarrassing or silly ideas. Remember the ladder? All ideas are valid. People should feel comfortable sharing what comes to mind without filters.

A brainstorm is pretty much like life itself.

There are things we can expect, and things that just come out of nowhere.

Let me put it this way: If we all knew what would spark a brilliant thought, we’d just say that, and be done. We wouldn’t need a brainstorm, or it would truly last just 90 seconds.

We never know. And that can be the frustrating thing about a brainstorm, or the most wonderful thing about it: not knowing when a shy thought or a “dumb idea” can become the trampoline for the best idea of our lives.

This article was originally published on Medium. It was developed in collaboration with Kim Ervin, Pyramid’s Social and Channel Strategy Director, based on a workshop we created and conducted together.


Twitter: @gustavoasman
At Pyramid, Gustavo oversees the design, interactive, editorial, and social media teams, driving strategic thinking and creative problem solving across the firm. With extensive expertise in advertising and creative direction, Gustavo has worked around the globe, from Argentina to New York City, Southeast Asia, and now Seattle. This international journey taught Gustavo a lot: About similarities and differences. About going to the human essence. About pausing to see things from a new perspective. He has an extensive portfolio, with clients spanning Unicef, The Ad Council, DHL, and Unilever. Gustavo received a bachelor’s degree from Cangallo Schule in Buenos Aires and graduated from the Argentine Association of Advertising Agencies.