Brainstorming Gone Bad

The following is an extract from an upcoming book co-written with my friend and colleague Ken Cameron, written to accompany our Managing the UnManageable workshops.

During my career I have attended many meetings, in fact at times so many meetings that the old adage “meetings – the practical alternative to work” comes to mind.

At some point someone suggests we brainstorm ideas to resolve a particular problem and/or generate options to move a project forward. This is often met with a moderate degree of enthusiasm, followed by 15-20 minutes of people suggesting ideas. What happens next generally falls into two categories, either we end up with a long list of ideas, without time to fully evaluate them or as ideas emerge, the group or individuals within it, critique the ideas as we go.

Only recently I attended a board retreat when brainstorming was on the agenda. The Executive Director clearly briefed the board on the issue at hand and then asked for ideas as to a possible solution.

The exchange went something like this.

Executive Director: So what ideas do you have for generating interest in project x?

Board Member 1: Well we could do …..

Executive Director: No, that won’t work

Board Member 2: What about ….

Executive Director: Tried it before, too expensive

Board Member 3: Well that approach worked at ….

Executive Director: Well it won’t work here

Board Member 2: But if we tried … and … it might work

Executive Director: No we’re not doing it

Board Member 4: How about we try …..

Executive Director: I doubt that would be appropriate, not in line with our mission statement

Board Member 1: Not even if we …

Executive Director: No. it would create a policy conflict. Any other ideas?

Silence …..

Executive Director: Oh come on, doesn’t anyone have any ideas?

Merriam-Webster describes brainstorming as “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; also: the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem”, and yet there is a tendency for us to focus on the first part “spontaneous contribution of ideas” without sufficient time and effort focussed on the second part “mulling over of ideas”. As a result our brainstorming activity is often less fruitful than it could have been.

In our work with clients Ken and I like to encourage clients to utilize a technique generally known as the Disney Strategy, created by Todd Epstein and Robert Dilts, based on the technique Walt Disney used to transform ideas for animation films from dream to reality.

Here’s an overview of the Disney Strategy, including possible questions that could be asked at each point. The key is not to critique too early, but to explore each idea generated at the “Dreamer” stage and consider how this could be implemented at the “Realist” stage. Only then do you critically evaluate each option.

Dreamer: the person for whom all things are possible – helps to generate alternatives and possibilities; head and eyes looking up, posture symmetrical and relaxed.

Think about the big picture.

What is the purpose of the project?

  • What are the potential benefits to customers? investors? partners? team members?

  • What other possibilities are there?

  • What else could the project lead to in the future?

  • What do you want to do? (As opposed to what you want to stop doing, avoid or quit.)

  • Why do you want to do it?

  • What is the purpose?

  • What are the payoffs?

  • How will you know that you have them?

  • When can you expect to get them?

Realist: the person who sorts things out – helps to define actions; head and eyes straight ahead or slightly forward, posture symmetrical and centred.

Think about action.

What is the time frame for the project?

  • What is the first/next step?

  • What is evidence or feedback that we are making progress?

  • How specifically will the idea be implemented?

  • How will you know if the goal is achieved?

  • How will the performance criteria be tested?

  • Who will do it?

  • When will each phase be implemented

  • When will the overall goal be completed?

  • Where will each phase be carried out?

  • Why is each step necessary?

Critic: the person who picks up on the bits that don’t fit – helps to evaluate pay-offs and drawbacks; eyes down, head down and tilted, posture angular.

Apply logic.

Who might be positively or negatively affected by the project?

  • Why might someone (customer, investor, partners, team members) object to the project?

  • What are their expectations?

  • What is missing?

  • Under what circumstances would you not proceed with the project?

  • Why might someone object to this new idea?

  • Who will make or break the effectiveness of the idea – what are their needs and payoffs?

  • When and where would you not want to implement this new idea?

  • What positive things do you get out of our current way(s) of doing things?

  • How can you keep those things when you implement the new idea?

For further information on my work and how I can help your organization visit my website.

Join me and Ken at #CPHRab18 on April 12, 2018 to learn about “Recognizing ‘Red Flags’ & ‘Hidden Gold’ in Recruitment Interviews”

#brainstorming #meetings #creativity #problemsolving

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Russell Stratton

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RUSSELL STRATTON is an international Leadership Expert, Professionally Certified Trainer and Coach, with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. He is co-author of the book 'I Need to F@#king Talk To You - The Art Of Navigating Difficult Workplace Conversations'.


He is a Master Facilitator for Bluegem Learning's ground breaking "Leadership Success" workshop series - providing a practical toolkit for building engagement and improving individual and team performance. Using live actors in a stop/start forum theatre approach and a combination of dynamic experiential learning techniques, participants come away with a greater ability to actually perform better as employees and leaders in your organization.


He is an accomplished management education, learning & development professional with a proven track record of working with clients in the public, voluntary and private sectors to achieve lasting, measurable step changes in business performance.


Russell works internationally with a wide range of organizational cultures and with all levels from front line customer facing staff to executive management boards. Having worked as both a Personnel Manager and Operational Manager he works at both strategic and tactical levels.

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