How would you define brainstorming? What does it look like to you?
A bunch of people in a room talking over each other until, somehow, an idea is produced? That’s the picture most people have. I’ve been a part of a few of those over the years, and I have to say, as far as effectiveness, it’s about 50/50.
There are a lot of resources out there on how to brainstorm and what makes effective brainstorming, (some of which is really good), but to be honest, I’ve never found technique to be all that important in the actual process. The most successful brainstorming sessions I’ve been a part of involve little more than two people and something to write on.
I do wish sometimes that I had a set technique. The thing about calling yourself a “professional brainstormer” is that you feel like you have to show your credentials. But, the simple fact is, brainstorming is not so much about technique as environment. It’s not really about following a process as much as creating a space where the process can run all on its own.
Because the ideas are already up there. You never have to teach your brain how to think. It does that naturally. Like with most other creative processes, the trick is removing barriers in order to make it easier, and I’ve found that most of these barriers have very little to do with the process. And one of the biggest barriers is permission.
Brainstorming is not really about generating ideas. It’s about allowing ourselves to have the ideas we’ve already generated.
That’s basically what I do as a brainstormer. Okay, that’s not all that I do. I’m also a knowledge base and a sounding board, but a lot of what I do is give people permission. And I know that, because I’ve seen what happens when they have it.
I’m tempted to call it crazy, unbelievable, except that it keeps happening. I’ve seen it happen enough that I’m starting to not be surprised by it. In fact, I’m starting to expect it.
I was having a conversation with a friend only the other day. We were discussing an idea that was, more or less, a fantasy. Something we would very much like to happen but that seemed like it wasn’t going to. You know how those ideas are. Like traveling the world. Or quitting your job to become an artist. It’s not so much that it’s impossible, after all, it’s the sort of thing that has happened to other people, but it feels terribly implausible.
Yet, in the course of conversation, that idea, almost imperceptibly, turned from impossible to possible to reality. By the end of our chat, we were setting out action steps for it. Later on, I tried to figure out where we crossed that line, between impossible and possible, and I couldn’t really say. I do know it happened. At the start, we were just dreaming. By the end, we were planning.
I was helping another friend out with a memoir she is writing. She knew there was something important she wanted to say, but she was having trouble figuring out what it was. She had a point and had written an outline for it, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t have the kind of punch she knew the story had, because she had lived it.
And, again like magic, through the course of our conversation, she figured it out. Not only that, she remembered parts of the story she hadn’t included at first that now suddenly fit. Within an hour, she not only came up with a perfect theme, but had completely redone the outline, and even thought up the title. She not only knew what she wanted to write but had a renewed energy to go out and write it.
A part of me would love to take credit, but I know it’s not really me. At best, I was a facilitator for the process. A Thought-Sherpa, if you will. I have experience that I draw on, creative and intellectual, and I try to enter into a session prepared. In the end, though, it never really feels like my doing. Not entirely. I can tell people where to plant their foot, but it’s always them that takes the step, that makes the climb.
It’s the process. Part of the Big Magic that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about. I do know I bring something to the table in the way of expertise, but more and more I’m learning that what I really bring is a safe environment.
In all the brainstorming sessions I’ve been a part of, people rarely come to the table with zero ideas. There’s usually something they already have in mind, whether they realize it or not, but the question they’re trying to answer is: “Am I crazy?” Because some ideas feel impossible until we say them out loud, but we don’t say them out loud because they feel impossible. What we need is someone we know won’t call us crazy when we tell them our impossible idea.
And that’s what I so enjoy being for people. Because I get to see that magic happen. In the corniest way, it is the most amazing experience, watching an idea grow right before my eyes. Watching their eyes light up when they realize it could actually work.
Because in brainstorming as in life, all people ever need is the permission to be who they are and the assurance that they won’t be judged when they do. When they have that, that’s when the magic happens.
So, what do you need permission for? What impossible idea have you held off on because you’re sure you’d be called crazy if you ever gave it voice?
Go ahead. Say it.
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If there is an idea you’d like to pursue or just something you’d like to develop further, check out my Services page and schedule a brainstorming session.
Don’t worry. I won’t call you crazy.