A brainstorm should not be a cattle call (“let’s invite everybody!”), nor should it be random (“invite whoever is here today”).
You want specific people or people with specific skills. First and foremost, you want to invite …
1. Prolific idea people. You want individuals who can let fly a dizzying volume of ideas, 90 percent of which will be utterly useless, silly, unnecessary, illegal or unimplementable – and 10 percent which will be terrific, WOW, shocking, thrilling and compelling … in other words, exactly what you want.
2. People who fit the target profile. You want people who are the target audience. Or second-best, they immediately understand, appreciate or communicate how the ideas may be perceived or implemented. Also helpful, they have similar or relevant experience, such as working on a parallel business or industry, or they can transfer insights from one situation to a second, dissimilar situation. (For example, in a brainstorm for a petrol company wanting to launch a new gasoline with unique additives which made the car engine operate more efficiently, we brought in people who recently worked on a health supplement launch were the product had unique additives which made the human body operate better).
3. People with considerable knowledge of either or both the purpose or key issues. You want people who have a real, applicable knowledge or information about the topic or the problem. For a tourism brainstorm, we invited people who frequently travelled internationally, heavy users of tourism magazines, and experts in event management. Another option may be people in your department or account who have an astonishing ability to reduce arcane information from research down to a key insight.
Last but not least …
4. The brainstorm host – but only if he/she (or you!) can behave yourself. Apologies if this sounds harsh, but the majority of my clients should not attend their own brainstorm. Going through my diary over the past 12 months, I can say that well over half of my clients should have been barred from their own idea session. Above all else, they easily brought the most negativity to the brainstorms for one of three reasons:
- They’ve lived too closely to the subject for too long.
- They’ve been worn down by management, by their clients/partners/bosses, or by themselves.
- They’re frustrated by someone else’s inability to see the merit of their ideas.
One client liked to say: “We’re tried that (and that, and that)!” Later, I learnt that the ideas had been sold poorly to senior management so none of the ideas were “tried” at all. Lesson learnt: Protect your ideas by selling them properly to others.
Another client said: “My boss will never go for that.” Afterwards, we learnt the reverse was true. The client was fired two months later for never bringing ideas to the table. Lesson learnt: Know what the boss’ boss wants.
A third client said: “These ideas aren’t do-able.” A few months later, we watched their primary competitor successfully roll-out the same idea and, later that year, pour salt on our wounds by winning an important industry award. Lesson learnt: Stand up for your ideas if you believe in them.
Over the years, I’ve gained enough reputation with a few clients that we’ve come to an agreement. In advance of the brainstorm, they give me all of their ideas, concerns, issues, frustrations, complaints, background and history, and in turn, I use these to guide the brainstorm without them in the meeting. Or, once the brainstorm part of the meeting is over, they join us to help select the best ideas.
I have a few clients who said “to hell with you, I’ll join my own brainstorm, thank you very much.” That’s fine, but most of them know I also conduct a pre-brainstorm without them to ensure we’ll have fresh ideas.
A few other clients get by this rule by sending one of their staff members. Yes, fine – but they follow the same rules.
Finally, one last point. How many people should attend a brainstorm? I believe four to eight people is ideal. Anything more becomes a hostage situation.