Why This CEO Hates Brainstorming
March 23, 2015

Why This CEO Hates Brainstorming

by Brian de Haaff

I get the cold shivers whenever I hear someone say, “We need to figure that out.” I should not, but I sadly do. I once worked with a lackluster CEO who would use this catchphrase all the time. But it’s what happened after he said these words that seriously pained me.

After he shared those telling words, he next would exclaim, ‘We need a brainstorming session to work through it!’

So, when I heard, “Figure it out,” I knew that I would waste another two hours of my life “brainstorming” the next day. The lasting effect is that to this day, I get a little jumpy when people talk about brainstorming. You probably do, too.

If you are like me and have worked for a few companies, you have spent hundreds of unhappy hours brainstorming. That’s why we reject both the word and the concept at Aha!

We are told by “collaborative bosses” that we should use brainstorming sessions to generate new ideas or solve problems. Supposedly, a room with 5 – 20 of your colleagues will get the creative juices flowing. But only if you do it right, make sure everyone has a chance to share their ideas, and never jump to judge too quickly.

Right. We all know how often that happens. Never.

The great lie is that brainstorming sessions are a free and open environment that encourages participation. Most often, they simply lead to groupthink or political posturing.

Here are the top reasons why brainstorming sessions go wrong:

“Why are we here?” Brainstorming sessions are deliberately disorganized. When the purpose of any discussion is not clearly stated, it’s very hard to distinguish the right idea from the ridiculous. Even the most articulate managers are afraid to introduce too much structure because it may hinder getting to the perfect answer. We would all be better off clearly stating the problem and jumping to the best ideas and knocking them around.

“Keep those ideas coming!” In most brainstorming sessions, teams are asked to get all ideas out on the table. This means that everyone feels compelled to share an idea — no matter how productive (or not) it might be. Most problems that people deal with on a daily basis are fairly easy to understand, and the possible set of solutions is not large. Quickly focusing on what will work, should not be a group therapy session.

“Do not judge” People have been led to believe that in brainstorming, all ideas are equal. This means that early judgement of ideas is frowned upon. Rather than quickly judging an idea as good and acting on it, there is the desire to wait for something better. But, it never arrives and more data is often needed because people are afraid to move forward — which leads to nothing but more brainstorming sessions.

Brainstorming sessions often have the opposite effect of what is desired. Instead of empowering employees, they paralyze us.

Regardless of your job, your goal should be to provide as much value to the organization as quickly as possible. To excel at work, the ability to quickly gather feedback and ask for help is essential. But brainstorming sessions will not help. They stop deep thinking, are painful to attend, and delay progress.

There is a reason that if the boss loves to brainstorm, you do a lot of it. Brainstormers love company, and one session is never enough. Just, please do not invite me to the next one.

What happened at your last brainstorming session?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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