How many times have you been part of a brainstorming session only to come out of the session thinking one (or more) of the following:

  • What a waste of time!
  • Well, that was productive.  I got all of my e-mail Inbox reading caught up.
  • It sure would have been nice to get a word in.  _____ (fill in the name) did all the talking.
  • Nobody really wanted our ideas.  Everything has been decided.  This was all lip service.
  • I didn’t contribute anything.  Why was I even invited?
  • It sure would have been nice to have a structured process for the session.  It was nothing but a “free-for-all.”
  • We talked and talked (for hours).  But at the end all we had were long list of ideas.  We never came to a conclusion on which ideas are the best and should be pursued.


If you’ve experienced anything close to what is listed above, you have fallen into a very common situation – Mismanaged Brainstorm Session Syndrome (MBSS).  Even worse is when we fall prey to MBSS over and over and subsequently come to the rational conclusion that brainstorm sessions are not worth the time and don’t generate results even close to our expectations.  Therefore, we avoid brainstorming sessions at all costs – we don’t organize them, we don’t participate in them, and we don’t support them with our staff.

And if the above describes your feelings or actions, you would not be alone.  In an ongoing survey of organizational challenges, 72% of all survey respondents say that they have challenges with brainstorming sessions.  In fact, the twto most common situations are as follows:

  • Brainstorm or idea generation sessions are dominated by certain people, prohibiting everybody to participate.
  • Brainstorm or idea generation sessions lack structure and focus. They are side railed too easily and fail to produce results.


However, I am pleased to tell you that MBSS is not a reflection of brainstorming; rather it is a reflection of the facilitator and the (lack of) process used.  Brainstorming is a very powerful tool for several reasons.

  1. It brings experts’ ideas together (the employees’ ideas)
  2. It validates employees’ worth to the company
  3. It secures buy-in and support for change initiatives (ideas) when people understand how an idea was developed
  4. It provides a healthy list of ideas for consideration after the best ideas are implemented
  5. It creates a culture where employees and management can truly focus on bringing the best ideas forward without the need to say whose idea it is/was


When people think about brainstorming topics, they most often choose “safe” topics such as “Marketing campaign ideas” or “Employee outings ideas” or “Holiday party activity ideas.”  Rarely (if ever) does management organize a brainstorming session around a topic like “How can the _____ staff be more productive, effective, efficient, and satisfied in their job?”  Opening a discussion like this can easily turn into a session riddled with negativity and emotion – resulting in more damage to morale than boost.

However, it is exactly this type of brainstorming session that, when properly managed, can boost morale quite high because employees are given a venue to voice their concerns and needs.

I once facilitated a brainstorming session with a group of school district clerical staff on exactly this topic.  Through a properly structured process, the ladies were able to voice their concerns. The first idea offered concerned their pay (this is an obvious one, but is out of their control) but soon they moved on to more productive ideas that were in their control and would actually improve the work environment.

By taking emotions and personal agendas out of the equation as much as possible, the group came up with some very insightful, useful, feasible, and realistic ideas on how to make them feel better in and about their jobs.  Adding a rationale for making certain ideas the “best of the best” ideas that they wanted to suggest to the District Superintendent, along with a list of benefits and realistic challenges for implementing the suggestions, the final ideas were received openly and taken seriously.  In a follow-up, I learned that several of the suggestions got implemented, much to the joy of the clerical staff.

The trick is providing a structured process for collecting, filtering, and documenting ideas generated in the brainstorming session.  With the properly selected group, a variety of collection methods to gather ideas, and established rules for choosing “the best of the best” ideas, any topic, no matter how “safe” or “volatile” can be considered.

At Innovative Management Tools we recommend using IDEAS – Brainstorm Management Activity.  Here is a link to a short video regarding this Conversation Framework.  Mismanaged Brainstorm Session Syndrome (MBSS) – Innovative Management Tools

And gone will be the days of wasted time, unproductive meetings, dominated brainstorming session, and MBSS.


Benefits of Effective Brainstorm Management

  1. Lower costs by getting the right people assembled with the best ideas and get those ideas out on the table in as a short of time as possible.
  2. Increase productivity by securing buy-in through employee engagement.
  3. Improve morale by validating employees’ ideas and contributions to the company.
  4. Develop management by giving them a process by which they can tap into the experts and bring the best ideas forward to help the company.


Best Practices for Brainstorming Sessions

  1. Conduct a brainstorming session not only on “safe” topics, but on topics that will really provide value to the company.
  2. Select people carefully and let participants know why they were selected.
  3. Use a facilitator from outside the department (or organization) to manage the process, keep people focused, and avoid MBSS.
  4. Use the Conversation Framework IDEAS – Brainstorm Management Activity if you do not have a similar tool that brings structure and organization to your sessions.


In my next post I’ll talk about a way to plan for 2024 – getting your people aligned with the company’s strategic plan.  

Until next time!


Patrick Seaton