Your Brainstorms Suck

Brainstorms are one of the most fun parts of the communications planning process. You get to remove restrictions from your mind, pretend there are no limits and be as creative as you like.

The trouble is, most brainstorms suck.


Most brainstorms focus entirely on tactics… on coming up with ideas in whatever way you can. You end up with ideas in search of a strategy. People then try to craft a strategic framework around it to justify the “big idea” to the decision maker.

If course, decision makers love the big idea. It’s glamorous; they can get excited. The strategy seems to fit with the idea, too (because you made sure it did).

The critical filter to apply is: do the ideas and the strategy flow back up to the objectives at hand?

You won’t make many friends if you only push this line of thinking towards the end of the process, especially if you keep pressing the issue. People will often have to admit to themselves that there isn’t a fit there, and you’ll become the bad guy. EVERY communications person out there thinks they come up with strategic ideas, whether it’s true or not.

Instead, try to rig the process from the beginning. Pull a smaller group together and figure out the strategic approach you want to take to the issue at hand. Pull that into a briefing and make sure everyone has read it before the brainstorm. Review it again at the beginning of the session. Then, take the handcuffs off and brainstorm away with the same freedom as before.

Finally, at the end of the session (either with the group or separately), filter the ideas through that strategic approach and see which ones stick.

The result: ideas led by a strategy that hits the business need, not the other way around.

Make sense? How do you ensure your brainstorms are effective?

16 Responses toYour Brainstorms Suck

  • Dave–Thank you. I’ve sat in many meetings and listened to senior people and consultants jump past the goals and strategy straight for the tactics. The problem is that it’s easier to wrap your mind around. There’s more of a propensity to do this when a competitor is doing something that your firm isn’t. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen

  • Laura and I read this with great dismay. We disagree entirely with the very premise of this post. In fact, we brainstormed all of the ways in which you are incorrect. The final whitepaper will be fair, but cutting.

  • Kidding with that last post. In seriousness, I largely agree with your article. Imho, brainstorms work best if they’re understood by the program strategist/s to be just one specific tool in developing the strategy, a process that needs to be driven with focus and intention.

    Personally I’m probably a bit looser than you describe above when I lead brainstorms – I like keeping a lot of the filters out of the room and using them as an early stage tool to explore a wide field of directions. Afterwards, I/team work them through filters and develop ones that work even further.

    But really, it’s the same model – brainstorming with purpose, rather than the “let’s send a group unprepared into a room for an hour and we’ll come out with the final client idea” model. 🙂

  • Interesting post, Dave. I agree with your premise and a lot of your suggestions. A few things I’d like to add:

    – Strategies are best developed from insights, and you’ll rarely find to those in brainstorms. You should have at least the basic elements of a strategy in place by the time you get to the brainstorm. Strategies must relate to objectives. Business objectives —> Marketing objectives —> Communications objectives.

    – These days, I’m finding that I either start brainstorms off with a sort of strategy/opportunity brief that the team has read ahead of time, or I’ll present a short deck that tells the story and gets us to the place where we need to be to start the brainstorm. It depends on how far along we are in the process and what needs to be accomplished today.

    – 4-5 people MAX in a brainstorm. Anything else becomes too hard to manage.

  • Your strategy makes more sense. You should know what you are trying to create instead of having some random ideas. Framework makes more sense.

  • Part of the problem from my perspective is that there is a great chance for brainstorming sessions to lose focus. People start talking about one idea or one strategy and the next thing they know, they are talking about other projects, bringing up personal issues or however the story ends up going. Personally, I always find that brainstorming sessions work best for me when they are short and pointed. Trying to put too much into one allotted time period can turn into a mess.

  • Wow. You have completely identified a pain of mine, and you quickly fixed it in a little over 300 words. Business goals and strategy will set the tone of our next brainstorm. Thanks for this post Dave.

  • Wow. You have completely identified a pain of mine, and you quickly fixed it in a little over 300 words. Business goals and strategy will set the tone of our next brainstorm. Thanks for this post Dave.

  • Jen Moss
    ago10 years

    Thanks for the post, Dave – I wholeheartedly agree that serving up a tactic-pie with no crust, will only make for some pretty sloppy eating.

    The only caution I have when formalizing what is one of the most fun aspects to our business, is that you quickly become the teacher that criticizes for coloring outside the lines. A work of art, can often come out of the most unlikeliest of discussions.

  • what a fabulous site!! Thanks for the site.

  • Great post – any part of which could help improve the brainstorming process. We try to do something similar, but it’s been much less regimented, so it will be interesting to try using more of it in the next meeting.

    (What I would love to hear one day is any insight you have input on how to do a better job of getting more fleshed-out objectives out of a third party going into the brainstorming: as a publisher, we are frequently asked to help created programs to respond to advertisers’ objectives. The problem: they literally tell us their only goal is to “sell more product” and they have no strategy for how to do it.)

  • We have a rule of thumb. You either discuss strategy or you brainstorm tactics to meet a strategy. Never both.

  • Your article was very interesting and informative. it’s really a beautiful stuff.

  • The real culprit is the construction industry. They have not applied invisible paint on our houses.

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