Nathan Jones
Nathan Jones 15 April 2016

How to Behave in a Brainstorm

Brainstorms can be very tense when managed incorrectly. Will looks at the way our behaviour can affect the success of creative meetings and offers up some quick tips.

I go into multiple brainstorm meetings, either with my team or clients, every week. What is evident, regardless of meeting length, is that a number of factors go into the success of a meeting. Experience, time of day, prior research and the amount of booze caffeine the group consumes are just a few examples of things that can affect the success of a meeting. But I want to talk about behaviour – one of the most important but least focused on topics in discussions around creativity.

Quick Disclaimer: this is not an antiquated guide to etiquette! Behaviour matters because when we act inappropriately in brainstorms it can have long-term effects on the happiness of the team and the quality of the work.  

Brainstorm archetypes


I want to start by introducing the main types of people I have encountered in brainstorms. I’ve outlined my thoughts on each and what actions we can take to get the most out of them.

Second Disclaimer: These are not intended as character assassinations! Each of the archetypes have positive elements so it is a worthwhile exercise to reflect upon which description is best suited to you. Considering our chief characteristics gives us a better self-awareness and often means we are more aware of the character types of people around us.

The Juggernaut: These people will come up with an idea and run with it regardless of feedback from others. They are often the loudest, bravest and most passionate and will attempt to turn conversation back to their ideas. They treat brainstorms as a Darwinian fight for survival.

The Daydreamer: The Daydreamer can be very creative but tunes out when discussion turns to something that doesn’t interest them. A short attention span often means they are not able or willing to help develop the ideas of others.

The Thinker: Is often the quietest in the meeting. Like a sponge they will absorb all the conversation points, take detailed notes and only contribute when they feel they have a fully-formed idea. They can often find the initial stages of a brainstorm quite awkward.  

The Catalyst: They may never come up with the best ideas but their enthusiasm, willingness to participate and wide-spread knowledge triggers creative flurries from other team members.

The Refiner: These are the icing-on-the-cake merchants. They are able to process, filter and distil all the ideas into tangible products. Their main skill is interpretation which means they can rarely claim the creation of big ideas.

The Overlord: The Overlord is only interested in seeing an ROI on the time spent in meetings. They are bureaucratic rather than creative and are the most harmful influence out of all the archetypes. Action: Keep them out of creative meetings at all costs!

Many of the flaws of these archetypes can be handled with the same methods. As long as an environment of mutual respect and collaboration is created then meetings will run smoothly. I offer some specific advice on this in the conclusion.

Handling Criticism

After becoming aware of the characters we work with, the next challenge is considering an approach to being critical and being criticised.

Moving on from a bad idea can be hard as we are required to simultaneously assess our opinions against our colleagues’ whilst considering the feelings of everyone involved. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up for the best ways to handle meeting room conflict.

How to be Critical

It is worth remembering that you are not in the meeting to annihilate the ideas of others; your role should be about reaching the correct answer for a client as a collective. That being said, it is a hard skill to objectively consider your own ideas against the views of your colleagues. Daniel Dennett in an article on Brain Pickingsoffers a series of steps to take.

  1. Repeat and re-express the opinion of your colleague
  2. Make a list of all the points of agreement
  3. Let your colleague know of all the positive features of their argument you hadn’t considered before they made their point

The first three steps are crucial in the process of providing constructive criticism as they allow us to:

-        Assess whether we fully understand our colleague’s viewpoint

-        People are given the chance to re-think and re-evaluate their opinion by having to explain in detail what they mean

-        Find the middle-ground of discussion. These points are often the most fruitful as both parties share a belief and are interested in developing them are further

-        Make colleagues more receptive to criticism as you have invested time in seeing their viewpoint

-         You should now feel free to critique the idea. It goes without saying that manners and understanding will smooth the whole process!

How to take Criticism

Taking negative feedback well is a rare skill that requires plenty of practise. According to Douglas Stone, Author of “Thanks for the Feedback”, people react badly to criticism for three reasons: the criticism may seem unfair, the person may not respect the view of the person giving it or “the feedback may rock the listener's sense of identity or security”. The process Dr Stone suggests for dealing with criticism is much the same as Dennett’s advice on how to criticise - where Dr Stone’s advice differs, is that he recommends when you receive criticism you should buy yourself time to think about what has been said. This will allow you to cool down and think of a measured response.

Conclusions & Advice

In order to conduct an effective brainstorm, it’s important to be aware of both your own behaviours and those of others. During idea generation, be aware of the different archetypes in the room and how to bring the best out of them (or avoid the worst). When you move on to more developed ideas and are in critical mode, make time to ensure you fully understand your colleague’s thoughts before rushing in with criticism – and give yourself time to reflect on criticism of your own ideas. Ultimately the challenges you face in brainstorms are not going to be fixed by reading one blog post – practice and experience are necessary to understand how best to conduct a session. There are, however, environmental factors that you can control from the get-go in order to create an optimum setting. These environmental factors are important to control if you are looking to get the most out of all of your archetypal brainstorm participants. I’ve listed these here as final takeaways to start with before your next brainstorm.

Someone with experience should chair the meeting

This is a tricky job as this person is going to be responsible for getting the most out of everyone in the room. Whilst experience is important, the best chairman isn’t necessarily the most senior person in the room.

Don’t rely on brainstorms as your only creative output

It puts too much pressure on the meeting and reduces the types of idea you can have. Individual and pair work can often be just as effective.

Make sure you have thought about the character types in the room

It seems a silly exercise but we will get new starters to do a Myers-Briggs test. This is a nice way to unobtrusively find out little details about a person’s character.

Warm up

The atmosphere in a brainstorm is very different to the general office environment so you need to make that separation. You can find loads of examples of warm up exercises online.

Fresh perspectives are useful but trust is essential

Constantly throwing new people into meetings can be disruptive so if a team is working well it is often best not to rock the boat.

Author bio:

Nathan Jones is a Digital Marketing professional working for the full service digital marketing agency The Big Group. If you enjoyed this blog, there are many others you can read on our website.  

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