Stop Brainstorming, Start Innovating

Stop Brainstorming, Start Innovating

Meetings have become a staple of #worklyf, and are useful for a bunch of different things- fostering team cohesion, managing projects and tasks, sharing information, and decision making. However, all too often we find ourselves in poorly managed meetings, and instead of making productive use of our time we’re stuck listening to discussions unrelated to our work, feeling frustrated, and daydreaming about the next season of Game of Thrones. These types of meetings leave us feeling lethargic, eat into our solo work time, and actually result in poor project outcomes.

Relatably, figures show the the average number of hours spent in meetings per week has gone up over the past decade, with estimates as high as 23 hours spent in meetings in an average week for senior managers. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re more productive or effective. One team of Harvard researchers found that 71% senior managers rate meetings as unproductive and inefficient, and other figures show high rates of dissatisfaction and unproductive meeting experiences (see ‘The Productivity Impact’ infographic).


So what’s going wrong? And what can we do better?

Weathering the Brainstorm

One major reason for meeting unproductivity stems from the lingering misconception about brainstorming as an effective tool for innovative development. Meetings are often seen as a space for idea generation; it seems intuitive that inviting more minds and perspectives into the same space would lead to higher collaboration and idea generation, a process usually formally encouraged through brainstorming. The brainstorming technique, developed by Alex Osborn in the 50’s, theoretically enables multiple people to collaborate and come up with new ideas in a formalised way. However, since then, there have been decades worth of evidence disproving the effectiveness of this method. Rather, a meta-analytic review of 800 papers testifies that we actually come up with better ideas outside of meetings.

There are a couple of reasons for this unproductiveness, often exasperated by having too many people in the one meeting. This includes things like ‘social loafing’- where the effect of many people present is that the individual contributes less- and ‘production blocking’- where limited air time for ideas results in reduced idea sharing and workshopping. In essence, less effective ideas are produced, and more people’s time is used to get there.

This misconception of meetings as a place for effective idea generation, and issues of too many people attending meetings, can contribute to the ultimate time-wasting trifecta: meetings that are too frequent, too long, and poorly managed, causing poor attendee experience, and a heap of wasted time for the company. The upshot? Ditch brainstorming from the meeting agenda, and use the time to work on other outcomes instead.

Troubleshoot At The Root

There are a couple of easy things we can do to hack the meeting trap and lead more effective meetings. First up is having a pre-set, strictly adhered to agenda, with clear aims and time allocations for each part of the meeting. You can even trial the radical ‘22-Minute Meeting’, which advocates for total concentration (no laptops, no phones, no off-topic comments), cutting out lag time and super-charging attendee engagement.

Meeting face-to-face if at all possible, rather than over the phone or online, is also super important for good meetings. Team members build important connections and trust face to face that you just can’t get over Zoom. Further- a show of hands if you’re guilty of doing other work whilst in an online conference? Thought so.  

Another must-do is cutting down the number of attendees. Yes, this may be initially abrasive to office politics, but being transparent about why the invite list has shrunk- to ramp productivity, rather than exclusivity- should help to assuage any resentment. There are lots more tips for streamlining meeting effectiveness online that you can check out, such as over here.

Collaboration Without Walls

The question remains, then- if meetings are best for information sharing, team management and cohesion, and decision making- where does effective innovation actually take place?

In line with market trends towards open offices- such as those found in coworking spaces- innovation spaces have spilled out of the board room and onto the desk. More and more, the value of informal, face-to-face contact for team members is being recognised as a facilitator of collaborative innovation and team cohesion, rather than more and more meetings. Coworkers are able to bounce ideas back and forth, and discuss projects in a much more organic way, which reflects the nature of idea generation. Often, our best ideas come to us when we’re not under pressure to have them (shower thoughts, anyone?)

Meetings have a bad rep- but they don’t have to. It is possible to have super productive, meaningful, and fun (by gosh!) meetings, by sticking with a clear aim and schedule, creating space for engaged participation, and utilising the real-world contact time for developing important team cohesion. You can chuck out brainstorming, too; outdated and disproven, encouraging organic team interactions in the office and framing it a legitimate space for idea generation and collaboration instead will help recover otherwise lost time in meetings, and allow innovation to develop all week ‘round.


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