Better Than Brainstorming

I really like this article by one of favorite authors, Adam Grant: “Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work“. I will gladly admit – when I was younger, I really loved brainstorming sessions. They were very energizing; they allowed a team to all get together and work on an important issue; they allowed each person the opportunity to build upon an idea generated by a teammate. All great things. And brainstorming meetings can be managed to at least partially mitigate the downsides that Adam points to: “You’ve probably seen people bite their tongues due to ego threat (“I don’t want to look stupid”), noise (“We can’t all talk at once.”), and conformity pressure (“Let’s all jump on the boss’s bandwagon!”). Goodbye diversity of thought, hello groupthink. These challenges are amplified for people who lack power or status: the most junior person in the room, the sole woman of color in a team of bearded white dudes, the introvert drowning in a sea of extraverts.”

But in the article Adam also describes an alternative process he calls “brainwriting” which I like. It involves written input by individuals, that are then distributed anonymously for team review and voting. I can see where, particularly in company settings, that this would work well.

But what about the single-person entrepreneur? The more traditional approach, which I’ve used, is to invite a bunch of individuals to a Zoom meeting for a general discussion of a topic that you and they feel needs to be addressed. As with brainstorming meetings, you are able to collect input all at once, and one person can build upon another’s idea in real time. But my experience was that, consistently, we did not get the deepest and most valuable input from the participants. And afterwards they did not seem terribly engaged in subsequent work on the topic. In a group setting it just isn’t possible to have a deep conversation with anyone. So I would like to share an alternative process I’ve used a few times since going off on my own to form several small businesses.

Instead of inviting the people who you think can contribute the most to a group meeting, invite them to separate one-on-one conversations on the problem/opportunity you’re trying to address. I’ve found this approach to be so much more fruitful. The person you’re speaking with is more fully engaged, giving the topic their full attention, rather than being politely quiet in order to let others contribute. It allows you to have a more in-depth conversation, so that you can explore more details and nuances.

Of course, you lose the randomness and group momentum possibilities of a brainstorming session, but you can still partially achieve the “build upon ideas from others” aspect. The further you go through the process of completing your individual conversations, the more you can introduce ideas from previous sessions into later ones. And if desired, you can probably schedule a follow-up session with earlier participants in order to get their feedback on subsequent ideas.

This approach also has a few other very valuable benefits:

  1. Higher participation. When you pick a date for a group meeting, and you’ve invited busy people, it is inevitable that some won’t be able to make it. However when you schedule an individual meeting, it will happen. Even if something comes up, you can reschedule.
  2. It happens more quickly. If you’re inviting busy, in-demand people, getting most of them together on a a single date means that the meeting won’t happen for a quite a while.
  3. You have a better opportunity to build a stronger relationship with the person.
  4. It better sets the stage for further collaboration on the project.

In early 2023, just as I was transitioning three businesses to new owners, I used this methodology to collect ideas and get feedback from 25 trusted advisors. It worked incredibly well. From those conversations, I’ve birthed Find Your Next Calling, decided not to pursue a couple of ideas that I initially thought promising, and identified a couple of other good ideas that for health reasons have had to go on the back burner.

What have you found works best for you?