Brainstorms Without Dry Spells

February 15, 2021
Eric Postal, MD

Eliminating time frames for idea generation can frequently lead to more robust discussion and creativity.

I’ve had the pleasure of being included in more than a few brainstorming-sessions over the years, as recently as last week. It’s nice for multiple reasons: I enjoy creative spit-balling, I like knowing that others see value in my opinions, and I appreciate getting in on the ground floor when ideas are being hatched.

It won’t surprise regular readers of this column that some of my brainstorming sessions in the past couple of decades have been radiological. Focused on all sorts of things: workflow, interactions with referrers, partnership-tracks, and other schemes pertaining to compensation/motivation, webpage development, social-media leveraging...I could go on.

I described it as a pleasure, and for the most part it has been. Sometimes, however, sessions don’t quite live up to the “storm” part of brainstorming. Ideas might precipitate, but there’s way more arid dead-space in the mix than hoped for. An awkward sense of time-wasting settles in as participants mutely look around at each other.

Under such circumstances, I’ve had occasion to brainstorm about the brainstorming-process itself, and identified a few easily-implemented improvements.

Just about the worst way to go about it is to have everybody convene (in person, or virtually in the age of COVID) for a set block of time, with little or no clue about what’s being discussed. That is, everyone goes in “cold” and is presented with the issue to be studied then and there. Or their initial invite contains a vague idea of the subject, like “improving diagnostic accuracy,” but nothing more.

There being few absolutes in this world, I’m sure that approach isn’t 100 percent bad under all circumstances. Maybe the issue is too sudden and urgent for anything else. Or there’s a need to keep things hush-hush. Perhaps a hope that the brainstormers will be more creative if not constrained by a “boxed-in” presentation of the subject-info.

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That said, not everybody is going to be idea-productive in a limited block of time, right after being introduced to the task at hand. Some folks do better after they’ve had time to ruminate. And/or, they might not be at their best during a scheduled session. Perhaps something from earlier in the day is distracting them, or they didn’t get a lot of sleep.

My approach to conducting a brainstorming-session would be to severely scale back focusing on the session itself. Expand the time-frame to days, even a week or two:

Give a pre-mission briefing. As much as a week beforehand, issue a tidy synopsis of the subject-matter. Ideally punctuated with a key question or two. Some participants might do nothing with this…but others will take this on as “homework” and think things over, maybe even do some research and jot down notes to share. Every extra bit of input this week generates will make the actual discussion that much more active. Even those who don’t actively prepare will have the subject rattling around in the back of their minds, and might ultimately have more to say during the brainstorming-session itself.

Open more channels of communication. Don’t force participants to wait till the actual session to say everything that’s on their minds. What if someone has an immediate question about your pre-mission briefing, the answer to which would be helpful if not necessary for them to contribute? Their asking that question (and your answer to it) might also stimulate useful thoughts/contributions from others. A simple group-email conversation including all participants would be sufficient for this and the sharing of ideas before the session even begins. Another group-chat app (Discord, for instance) might be even better; folks with hectic email inboxes would be less apt to miss/ignore communications as they got buried by other messages.

Go ahead and have your actual brainstorming session. If the back-and-forth resulting from efforts mentioned above is robust enough, one might be tempted to skip the traditional brainstorming session entirely: Why have everyone set aside a block of time if they’ve been doing fine checking in and posting comments as it’s been convenient to them? Well, it might not have been convenient to everyone. Some folks aren’t predisposed to checking/using email or whatever other app was involved, or maybe they just had a few busy days and fell behind. And some folks just do better with good old-fashioned verbal interaction, complete with tones of voice if not facial expressions or body language. Begin the session with a review of the original mission-briefing, followed by a summary of key questions and ideas that emerged during the interval between briefing and session, so everyone is more or less on the same page.

Keep those channels of communication open. Once the session is done, don’t just thank everyone and close the book on the exchange of ideas, making vague promises that feedback/follow-up may be shared with the group in the future. A participant might have some brilliant insight just a few hours or days after the session completes…and if others in the group hear it, they might have some valuable responses themselves. You could improve the chance of such bonuses by sharing a post-mission “debriefing” with the group: here’s what we set out to do, and here’s what we’ve come up with. Anybody who feels like an important point was overlooked or misunderstood will almost certainly feel the need to reply.

Brainstorming is about collecting as many useful ideas as possible. I liken it to trying to collect water from an actual rainstorm. Conventional brainstorming would be like eyeballing the weather-forecast and setting out your water-collection vessels in a 30 minute-to-60 minute interval, hoping you’d get the best of it. Why not have those vessels out for a much broader swath of time and benefit from rain whenever it might fall? It’s that much more insurance against the main event turning out to be a dud.

Follow Editorial Board member Eric Postal, M.D., on Twitter @EricPostal_MD.