Time to Brainstorm? Ditch the Pitch.

Ditch the Pitch

A few months ago I was invited to a brainstorming session for a friend’s startup. He had asked three people he knew who work in marketing to join a discussion with him and his key staff. Here’s how it went.

The meeting was scheduled from noon until 2PM. One of the invitees called to say he would be late, so we decided to start without him. After grabbing lunch we launched right into a great discussion. My friend, the CEO, and his team were sharing interesting information, and the other invited expert and I were guiding them toward some interesting ideas.

At 12:45, the third invited guest showed up. After we were all introduced, the latecomer asked the CEO a question, and then proceeded to conduct a one-on-one conversation with him, clearly expecting us all to listen.  After a few minutes, he started dispensing advice, counting his prescriptions off on his fingers as he described them.

By a few minutes after 1PM, the second invited guest started packing up his things, and said he needed to leave. I was thinking the same thing.  What had started off as a productive brainstorming session had come to a halt.

The latecomer had destroyed the meeting. He walked into the discussion without attempting to figure out what we had been doing before he got there. He started talking without first listening to the others in the room. He grabbed control of a situation that he was not even a participant of.

Effective brainstorming requires the same principles that effective selling and persuasion require. If you want to be part of a team effort to generate ideas, you must ditch the pitch and improvise an intriguing discussion with your colleagues.

These two articles I have written, “Take Your Brainstorming Sessions to a Higher Level” and “Take a Page From Hollywood, Improv Your Next Brainstorming Session,” go into detail about how to do this. Today, let’s focus on the value of ditching the pitch when you brainstorm.

A powerful brainstorming session is a group effort, and in order to create success with a group, it is important that the talents and ideas of each group member have an opportunity to rise to the surface. Ditching the pitch is a process that invites possibilities, and enables great ideas to emerge. When one person tries to control the direction of the discussion, great ideas are inevitably stifled.

When you brainstorm, tell yourself the following things:

  • “I am interested in learning from others.” Trust that the other people in the room with you have ideas that are better or can enhance your own.
  • “I am excited to hear the ideas that will emerge.” Be interested, excited and curious. Don’t assume you know the answers that will come up.
  • “I want to be a catalyst.” Focus on what you can do to nurture the discussion, without trying to control the discussion.

When writing Ditch the Pitch, I interviewed Michael Kang of the band The String Cheese Incident.  “Cheese,” as they are affectionately known by their fans, are a prolific “jam band” whose group improvisations bring audiences to their feet multiple times throughout a concert.

I first met Michael after a New Year’s Eve concert, in the lobby of the hotel we were both staying at. He had been locked out of his room, and although he was dealing with this hassle well after midnight, he was happy to talk about improvisation. I asked Michael what the secrets were to Cheese’s feats of group improvisation.  He described how the members of the group listen closely to each other, and are willing to play without knowing exactly where it will lead them.  As the lead improvising soloist in the group, he is willing to “go with the flow” and discover his destination, based on what his band mates are playing. When we later spoke by phone,, he told me that when this happens, the band achieves “group lift-off.”

Let’s all take a cue from Michael Kang. When we brainstorm, let’s enter these situations open to new ideas, and open to collaborative discussion. Bring your ideas, but don’t force them into the discussion. Focus more on the ideas of others than on your own– with your ultimate goal being the discovery of something new, that you could not have thought of on your own.

When you do that, your brainstorming team will achieve “group lift-off.”  Won’t that be fun?