Brainstorming demons

Brainstorming demons

Sure, brainstorming can be a productive way to solve problems; generate new products, services, or processes; and capitalize on golden opportunities. But far too often, say creative problem-solving experts Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer, the process is hijacked by disruptive individuals who undermine collaborative efforts. The authors of SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas offer profiles of six troublesome employee types and solutions for keeping your sessions on track and productive.

Attention Vampires

They always want to stand out, be in the spotlight, and be the center of attention. It's always about them. Attention Vampires can smother a brainstorming session by dominating the conversation, excessively pushing their ideas and ultimately sucking the life out of the whole group.

Wet Blankets

These are the pessimists who see the impending doom and failure in every idea. Wet Blankets have the unique ability to instantly dampen the enthusiasm level of a session by casting doubt. They are discouraging and depressing, though the majority of their comments don't hold water.

Idea Assassins

These seasoned killers love to shoot down ideas … anyone's and everyone's. Under the pretense of being constructive, they will find flaws, poke holes, and pick apart promising ideas until they bleed to death. These are the same people who go to birthday parties and enjoy popping the balloons.


They love every idea—as long as it's theirs. These totalitarians feel they are the only ones with good ideas—or good taste, for that matter. Everyone else's contributions need to conform to theirs or risk being shot down. Many bosses unknowingly become Dictators in meetings—not on purpose, but their role in the company makes it too easy. Such idea overlords are to be avoided at all costs. It's demoralizing to let them dictate a negative outcome for your group.


To them, nothing is simple or easy. They overcomplicate conversations and procedures and bring up extraneous facts or considerations that derail the flow of the group. Obstructionists overthink, overspeak, and singlehandedly dead-end otherwise promising sessions.

Social Loafers

These are the people who show up for a brainstorm session but rarely participate in the generation of new ideas in a meaningful way. Loafers contribute little of substance. They usually sit back, appearing bored or aloof, and let others do the heavy lifting.


While it's difficult to prescribe a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for handling these personality types, there are ways to effectively manage disruptive behaviors to keep brainstorming on track:

Forget the invitation.

The simplest way to avoid problematic personalities in a session is not to invite them in the first place. If it's the boss or a senior-ranking person, assure him or her that you will share any good ideas the group generates afterward. Or here's a novel idea: Tell the truth.

Establish rules of the game.

Introducing a few rules at the start of a session can help eliminate—or at least significantly minimize—disruptive behaviors. Among possible guidelines: Suspend all judgment. There's no such thing as a bad idea. Go for quantity, not quality. Embrace wild, audacious ideas.

Impose a short moratorium on talking.

If someone is dominating the session, being overly negative or judgmental, or being an attention hog, quickly shift gears and introduce a nonverbal brainstorming exercise. Ask everyone to silently write down five ideas, and then read their favorite aloud.

Segregate strong personalities.

A great tactic for managing strong personalities is to divide the group into smaller teams of three. Deliberately assign disruptive personality types to the same team … and watch the sparks fly. "Surprisingly, strong personalities often get along with one another in a productive way," Rigie says. "Have these teams develop ideas, and then take turns sharing the best ideas with the whole room."

Create a self-policing group.

Explain early that if anyone exhibits any type of ?negative or judgmental behavior, he or she is to be bombarded mercilessly by the group with crumpled paper balls. "Make a game out of it," suggests Harmeyer, a Tulane University graduate. "Encourage everyone in the room to participate to create a self-policing environment. While it may seem silly, this technique is a playful, good-natured way to minimize transgressions and allow the group itself to enforce the 'No Judgment' rule."

Invite a "Dream Team" vs. "The Usual Suspects."

When planning your next brainstorm, why not invite your ideal participants? Seek out knowledgeable individuals who possess a collaborative, can-do attitude—even if they are typically far removed from the project at hand. "Shaking things up can have a dramatic impact on a group's ability to collaborate freely, share, discuss, and build upon one another's ideas," says Harmeyer. "This is how innovative solutions are born."

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