Origin Agency
The Wellspring of Creativity


THE ORIGIN GUIDE TO GREAT BRAINSTORMS or “How ‘Troughs’ Saved Our Company!”


It was roughly 5 years ago when this company entered a new phase. We didn’t know it at the time and it was entirely unintentional.

We were brainstorming for a very difficult client. The kind of client who asked for “big” ideas with no explanation of what they meant by “big.” Who had no idea what they wanted but figured that they’d know it when they saw it. We had gotten to a point with this client that brainstorms were like a slog through muddy, cold water. We should have fired them long before, but that’s a topic for a different post. I don’t even remember what the assignment was on this particular day, but something happened that took us in a weird direction.

We started talking about American restaurants and the huge portion sizes. We were riffing about buffet-style places and how they were just one step above a cattle trough. And it happened. Someone joked that we should open a restaurant chain called “Troughs.” We all laughed and then jumped into the improvisation. We talked about what the logo would look like, what the restaurant décor would be, how the chairs would work, words for the jingle, the server uniforms, etc., etc. It was the most fun we’d had in ages. We didn’t stop laughing for an hour.

You could say it was a colossal waste of time. But it unlocked a river of creativity in us that reminded us why we’re in this business. When we finally got down to business on our client project, we had a new energy. We came up with something good.

“Troughs” reminded me of an important lesson. Sometimes, in order to get to your destination, you have to take long detours. I had lost that. Even though I’d been through brainstorm training several times and had honed my skills as a facilitator, working for a difficult client had given me tunnel vision. I had become very task oriented during brainstorms. That is not a recipe for success. And my teammates hated that about me. I was constantly shutting them down.

The idea of effective diversions was confirmed again when I read a recent NY Times article entitled “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” (Duhigg, 2/25/16).

The article was mainly about what makes some teams effective while others aren’t. The most effective teams weren’t the ones that stuck to a strict agenda or who used time most efficiently. They weren’t the ones with the smartest team members. The most effective teams were the ones where everyone felt valued; where everyone had a voice that was heard. In order for this to happen, you need to go “off agenda” sometimes. If you rein in every diversion or every “off strategy” idea, then you’re dismissing people’s thoughts. And they won’t feel that they’ve been heard. This will create team members with resentments that can grow. The conclusion of the article was that “Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”

That’s not to say that every idea is good. There IS DEFINITELY such a thing as a bad idea. But if you kill it off too quickly, you never find out what it could morph into.

So I’ll share Origin’s guidelines for great brainstorms. They’ve been learned by trial and error. This isn’t brain surgery, but we all need to be reminded to break away from our bad habits.

  • Start with great direction. Whether it’s a formal brief or an informal introduction, it’s very important to know what the parameters are. It’s also important to know what constitutes success. The concept needs to make business sense for the client and the team needs to know how that is defined. If the client isn’t clear with direction, you need to push back. You need to force them into some decisions so as not to waste your time. Make sure everyone has this direction before the first concept meeting.

  • Come prepared. Everyone should think about the assignment before the first brainstorm. This helps to avoid GroupThink and ensure that some of the more timid people have time to think and get heard.

  • Don’t be rigid. Let the conversation go where it will (at least for a while.) It’s important for the strategists on the team to step back a little bit and allow for creative diversions. If we hadn’t spent an hour on Troughs, we might not have gotten our groove back. You have to come back eventually, but don’t force it too soon.

  • Instead of dismissing an idea, follow the Improv rule of “Yes And.” This provides a pathway for an idea to grow and change and find its way to the right course. Figure out what’s appealing about the idea and apply that to the challenge at hand.

  • Don’t quit too soon. You may have a couple good, strategic ideas. But if you stop before you’ve really explored beyond that, you’ll miss important directions. You won’t get beyond the obvious ideas. Sometimes we go through an exercise where we assume that everything is legal and everything is affordable. With absolutely no restrictions, we explore what we would do. Those ideas are never realistic. But, often, there’s something about them that can lead us to a bigger, better concept.

  • Make sure everyone has a voice. Validate their ideas (or help them find the right path.)

  • Switch up the environment. Get outside, go somewhere inspiring. Just don’t get stuck in patterns.

  • Have fun and LAUGH! We’re not working in an ER. Taking 5 extra minutes to chat about someone’s love life or hear about their birthday plans can pay huge dividends in team morale and effectiveness.

Julie Wood