You can’t schedule an idea.

I’ve attended a few “brainstorming sessions” recently, and I thought to myself, “These things never work.” These meetings don’t really due justice to where ideas actually come from. Think about where you’ve ever been when you’ve had a great idea. For me, it’s one of a few places: When I’m running; when I’m driving; in the shower; just before I go to sleep; or sitting with my copywriter. These situations are all similar in that, for the most part, I am in complete quiet solitude. Alone with my brain, often not thinking about the specific problem at all.

  Ideas don’t just strike special people at magical moments. It’s what happens before that moment that’s important. In “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” Luke Sullivan points us to a simple system developed by James Webb Young (…and reworded by me):

1. Learn Hard
2. Think Hard
3. Wait…
4. “OH, SHIT!”
5. Make it happen

Those first two steps are real work. The brief, research, asking questions, and generally filling your brain with as much information as you can. Then, figuring out what that information means, mixing it together with other stuff you’re thinking about, movies, art, conversations, whatever. But don’t let Step #3 slip by. That waiting is critical. You have to give your brain time to stew, to synthesize the information, and formulate something good. I’m talking DAYS. It’s scary to think you don’t have any control over it, but when it’s your job to create ideas, you get comfortable with the fact that you just gotta wait and it’ll come.

“Brainstorms” don’t allow for Step #3 at all. And they usually skip over the first two as well. Watching one person try in vain just to be heard illustrates the fact that this situation only rewards fast thinkers and loud talkers. There’s not time or space in the room for contemplation, inspiration or academic consideration. And in the end, all we ever end up with is a few over sized sheets of paper with indecipherable multi-colored scribbles on them.

I’m not saying that only “creatives” should be allowed to go away and come up with ideas. Good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. There’s nothing I love more than when the junior account guy speaks up with a genius solution. Or when a producer knows just what to say to fix a problem in an edit bay. It’s great when people bring a few nice thoughts to the table, and we can work together to make them stronger.

A “brainstorm” can be useful for certain things. A specific, well defined task: “We need 50 interesting animals,” or “What are some movies with great driving scenes?” This sort of thing can be knocked out efficiently with a few people in a room. When the assignment is more nebulous, we run into problems. And don’t even get me started on the “break-out session.”

A group of smart people in a room can be a really powerful thing, if used in the right way. Let’s bring people together to talk about the problem, to teach each other about the challenge and show each other interesting things. We can get all of our brains on the same page in respect to the task at hand. But let’s not force ourselves to try to demonstrate how quick and loud we are. We need a little space to think. Then we can come back together, share our best ideas and work to make the best ones better.

I’d love to start a conversation on this. Please comment, tell me why I’m wrong, or right. And if you think brainstorms can be effective, or should be abolished.  

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