Why brainstorming in meetings does not work and how to do it differently!

by Nils Reubke

Are your meetings efficient? Do they produce new ideas? Does your team leave the room energised? If yes, you are lucky. Many meetings are considered inefficient and unnecessary, mainly due to insufficient preparation or bad organisation. As a result, meetings are often counterproductive to the tasks at stake, leave a sour mood in the team and constitute significant wastes in time and resources. While reducing wasteful processes and optimising value generation seems inherent to the success of any company, meetings often seem insufficiently included. The good news: there are solutions out there, and they are easy and effective.

Brainstorming: Good idea, bad application.

Many ideas never see daylight due to premature criticism or realism.

When it comes to meetings where the team is searching for solutions and ideas for a concrete problem, brainstorming as originally developed by Alex F. Osborn in 1939 is still one of the most widely used techniques. Osborne found that many ideas never see daylight due to premature criticism or realism. He thus advanced the following principles (Isaksen, 1998):

4 principles of brainstorming:

  • Defere Criticism: Even seemingly nonsensical ideas can be the trigger for a great idea.
  • Promote wilde ideas: It is much easier to tame down than to think up.
  • Aim for quantity: The more ideas there are, the more likely one good one will be among them.
  • Encourage combination and improvements: Use ideas of others to generate new and better ideas.

The problem being, while good in principle, application of the brainstorm technique is often misconceived. Studies like those by Taylor, Berry and Block (1958!) already showed that brainstorming as a tool to facilitate creative thinking is less effective in groups than when done at the individual level (cf. Isaksen 1998 for a more in-depth analysis and literature review). Here are some reasons why:

Why brainstorming does not work:

  1. Group discussions favour naturally extroverted team members. As a consequence, people who may think deeper (and thus slower), are naturally more introverted or may feel compromised due to the presence of a superior will contribute less than they would in a smaller or more intimate setting.
  2. Some people cannot concentrate while others are speaking. Thus, while some may be thriving on bouncing ideas of one another, they will be obstructing those in team who are operating at a difference pace or are currently exploring alternative ideas.
  3. Only one person can speak/ideate at the same time.
  4. The person at the board/flipchart acts as a filter to the ideas being generated. He or she may not be able to catch everything that is being voiced in a fast group discussion, may need to paraphrase and will do so in accordance with his or her own understanding and finally may also filter out ideas he or she may not consider relevant (typically when the executive is in charge of this task).
  5. The way team members operate in group-discussions will depend on personality types and work preferences or roles. While some may be stronger in generating ideas and big picture type visions, others are strong in discovering flaws or working out detail. When both types of thinking operate at the same time, they can easily obstruct each other.

What to do instead:

The question arises, how can teams combine the positive principles of brainstorming with an effective harvesting of the ideas of all team members and avoid the problems outlined above? There are two aspects to this question. The first, and the one targeted with this INSIGHT article, is the one of encouraging more uniform participation in the group in general (problems 1-4). The second aspect is effectively using the resources and values of various personality types in your team (problem 5), which will be covered by the next article in this series.

Turning the first aspect, the goal of ataining more uniform participation in the group, there are various so called brainwriting tools that have proven to be effective remedies.

Brainwriting: 3 easy and effective tools

Brainwriting follows the same principles as brainstorming but seeks to avoid problems common to brainstorming by collecting ideas quietly (and anonymously) in writing. Below are three variations of brainwriting:

6-3-5 Method

  1. Divide your team into groups of around 6 people each. 6 people is seen as the ideal size for a group that is large enough to generate good ideas and small enough to work effectively.
  2. Provide each team member with a prewritten A4 form (as shown below).
  3. In the first round (1-5mins) every team member writes their first three ideas in the top three boxes.
  4. After each round the sheet is passed to the team member on the right and the row below is filled with three new ideas. These can be completely new or a variation or improvement of the previous idea. There should be no discussion of the ideas during the rounds.
  5. After 5 changes each team member will have his/her form back with 18 ideas each. Clustering follows.

Note: Set time boxes for each round do not accommodate different (slower) paces.

Pool Method:

  1. Divide team into subgroups of 5-8 members each and provide each team member with a sheet of paper with three columns (as with 6-3-5 but with open number of rows).
  2. In the beginning, the first row is filled with ideas and the sheets put back in the centre of the table.
  3. Team members than take a new sheet from the pile at random, add new ideas and return the sheet to the pile, everyone at their own pace.
  4. The team or facilitator decide on a pre-determined time box, e.g. 20-30 mins.. Clustering follows.

Note: Accommodates different working speeds in the group.

Idea Card Method:

  1. Divide team into groups of 5-8 members and provide each member with sufficient post-its and pens.
  2. Each team member writes one idea per post-it and places it on his or her right until he or she runs out of ideas.
  3. Once the team member runs of out ideas he or she takes a post-it in his or left for further inspiration. New ideas can then be written on new post-it and moved to the right. Variation or improvements can be attached to the initial post-it.
  4. Facilitator makes sure post-its are circulating.
  5. The team or facilitator decide on a pre-determined time box, e.g. 20-30 mins.. Clustering follows.

Note: Fast and unlimited flow of ideas possible. Can be slightly stressful.



  1. Divide team into groups of 5-8 members and provide each member with sufficient post-its and pens.
  2. Team members take a few minutes (2-5) to “dump” their ideas (one idea per post-it).
  3. Team members present their ideas in front of team, while other team member can use the time to note down further ideas if they come up.
  4. New ideas are added in a second round. Clustering follows.

Note: Team members can clearly communicate their ideas. Association may be less strong with this method, due to other presenting ideas while one is thinking.