Creativity is more creative with limits

I’ve been involved with several brainstorming sessions recently. I’m not convinced they work, because people’s brains are too big.

The idea is that everyone can say anything, and that by doing so, we give the session handler lots of ideas to sift through. But I think people find this intimidating. They go blank. They get scared. It’s the equivalent of the copywriter’s nightmare brief: I want you to say anything, about anything, anytime. Given that the human brain has from 10 billion to 100 billion neurons, suddenly everything, about everything, kicks in. It’s too much.

Parameters need to be set. The book Creativity in PR gives a great example of the creativity continuum: think of the most ridiculous thing you could do, and the most conservative. Between those two extremes, your answer lies.

So, let’s take an example. Let’s imagine we’re promoting, oh I don’t know, pluck something out of the air, desks. Wooden desks. A company produces wooden desks and wants coverage. Its messaging is that its desks are sturdy which gives them longevity. 

What’s the most ridiculous thing we can think of? Put an elephant on one – really, an actual elephant – and see if the desk holds up. Make it a pink elephant. Paint that elephant pink. Put a tutu on it. Do it in Hyde Park at rush hour. Employ a ringmaster to shout about it. Metro would love it.

The least ridiculous? The most mainstream? An expert opinion on how important it is for a desk to be leanworthy. Because you don’t just use a desk to work on. You lean on it. I bet you’re leaning on your desk right now reading this. Metro might like that. Heck, even Horizon might feature it nowadays.

They could both work, but the former pushes the envelope – and, needless to say, the elephant – and is probably not right for a stolid desk manufacturer. The latter might get some coverage but is really quite dull.

So we can now operate somewhere between a be-tutued pink elephant in Hyde Park, and an expert in a broom cupboard with a comb-over commenting on desk sturdiness. Suddenly, people have an area in which to operate. They know what they’re trying to achieve, and the limits – yes, limits, even though it’s brainstorming – within which to operate.

I’m going to try this in my next brainstorming session. As soon as I see those eyes glaze over in panic, I’m going to set the extremes. People may look at me as if I’m a nutter, but that wouldn’t be for the first time.

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6 thoughts on “Creativity is more creative with limits

  1. This should be basic stuff. All brainstorms need a brief if they’re not going to be a waste of everyone’s time.

    Scope, limits, parameters – call them what you like, but they’re vital. They’re varied too: budget, time, physical resources, target audience…all of these impact and define the limits of any creative brainstorm and there are a million more. There’s no point even considering the pink elephant limit if the activity needs to be executed the week after next, in Finland, for £300…

    Bit sensible from us, that, I realise…

  2. World’s leading, I somewhat disagree with your comment about “brainstorms” needing a brief, with the exception of the time limit and determining the issue or challenge under discussion. Brainstorming sessions should not be confused with planning sessions; instead, often they are a forum for wild, outrageous and free-form thoughts. In fact, done properly absolutely no idea should suffer rejection or negativity from any of the participants–it’s supposed to be a very positive experience, for everyone involved.

    And sometimes it’s the quiet ones who come out with the most creative and interesting (and, ultimately, useful) suggestions in brainstorming suggestions. (The one wild idea that actually turns out to be innovative *and* worthy of implementation.) It’s a question of making the more introverted individuals feel comfortable enough to speak up (rather than getting a “deer in the headlights” look of panic), and in ensuring that the vocal (and dominating) people don’t control the direction of the brainstorming session. There are no bad ideas in an effective brainstorming session, and it is definitely not a place for even a hint of negativity.

    My organization hosted a brainstorming workshop session aimed at communicators, several years ago. It was led by Inge Christensen of Creative Expeditions, who was pilot testing it for business consumption. About a dozen of us spent two consecutive stimulating and wonderful half-days learning six different effective brainstorming techniques, and (in the process), began mapping out a really innovative and exciting launch (including an amazing party) for a new medical electronic monitoring device (it was all fictional). By the end of the first day, everyone was participating…and whatever the Ah-ha! idea was (which I can’t actually remember), I do recall it came from the until-then quietest individual.

    I found a 2004 article in Canadian Business, which features Inge Christensen, and how she describes taking the brainstorming creativity into the useful results realm:

    How to brainstorm for results

  3. Hi Judy – I agree in principle with almost everything you say, particularly about their being no place for negativity in brainstorms, but there have to be some parameters put around the process. It’s the same thing as ad agencies needing a creative brief.

    In my experience – as the Ghost points out – giving people the brief within which to be creative helps the quieter individuals speak out and everyone to contribute, and generally gets to more usable conclusions. Brainstorms aren’t about creativity for creativity’s sake – they’re about maximum creativity with the confines of a client’s resources (which is a more skilled exercise).

  4. Oh, yes, forgot to say. A decent brainstorm brief also reduces the chances of negativity in the brainstorm itself. If you say at the start that the client’s only got £300 to spend, then you won’t have to knock back a £2,000 idea in the brainstorm.

    Brainstorms in the real world have real world limits. Sad, but true.

  5. I actually think that would be a damned good way to impose valid limits on creativity. At the end of the day what are we trying to achieve? A healthier bottom line for the client.

    So, let’s kick off a brainstorming session with our creativity starting at 300 pounds or dollars, and ending at, say, 1000. Within that, be creative.

    I think that would spark off brilliantly creative *and* relevant, workable ideas.

  6. “So we’ll kick off this ‘brainstorming session’ by saying thunder all you want, but please put limits on your lightening-related ideas, because our creative is limited to no more than £1,000.”

    If you are going to shoebox any elements (except time) from the get-go, I say you need to find an alternative name for the session. Perhaps brainstorm what it should be called, as a name change doesn’t cost anything. 😉

    Or we can just file this under the “agree to disagree” category.


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