Editor's note: Bob Klein is chief strategy officer at Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, a Chicago marketing agency.

Ideas are the lifeblood of our industry. It’s our currency, which, these days, is perilously unstable.

Several months ago, I participated in an offsite brainstorm led by a “professional ideation moderator.” The name/title of this individual immediately gave me pause, as these “pros” all too often act as judge and jury. Few are truly skilled or properly trained to do more than facilitate what amounts to a biased conclave with their own predetermined agenda.

Unfortunately, that was the case in our meeting. Our moderator, armed with the dry-erase wand of power, anointed some of the ideas a coveted place on the whiteboard while others were conspicuously left off. Our moderator responded to some ideas with rapturous “That’s a great idea” or “Oooh, I like that” or “That’s it!” Other ideas elicited a silent moving on to the next person. Our moderator at once alienated some participants while outright embarrassing others.

It was impressive to see. Like watching a massive building demolition.

We’ve all been through these ideation vacuum sessions before, unfortunately. But it’s always more upsetting when they happen inside our own organizations – when designated leaders purport to gather people together to “brainstorm,” only to (hopefully) unintentionally offend or exclude otherwise valuable and creative people or ideas.

Back to our industry’s faltering currency: ideas. Shortly after the disaster session described above, our agency, in partnership with faculty at the Kellogg School of Management, undertook a survey of 126 client and agency marketing executives on this very topic. The findings were worrying:

  • Only 12 percent strongly agree* brainstorm meetings at their company are highly effective.
  • Only 10 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings at their company encourage wild ideas.
  • Only 13 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings at their company help them become more creative as an organization.
  • Only 10 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings at their company broaden their perspective.

*Five-point hedonic scale; strongly agree

Lurking immediately beneath the surface of these results is this troubling statistic: Only 10 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings at their company maximize the potential of all participants.

If it was simply that these brainstorm meetings are unproductive, we could write it off as part of the unavoidable inefficiency and spoilage in any marketing-driven company.

However, the big insight we unearthed from our quantitative study and concurrent in-depth interviewing is that brainstorming in our industry today, in truth, is actually undermining the fabric of our business – ideas. Instead of motivating and inspiring, it’s making people feel bad and sucking what creativity or good ideas that may have been in the room before right out the window and onto the street below.

  • Only 10 percent strongly agree participants in brainstorm meetings feel their ideas have equal worth.
  • Only 12 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings elicit the candid, unbiased views of all participants.
  • Only 12 percent strongly agree participants in brainstorm meetings feel comfortable bringing up different points of view.
  • Only 13 percent strongly agree participants in brainstorm meetings feel their voice is heard.

Neither engaging nor motivating

While you would hope that that strategically-minded leaders are establishing clear objectives, it’s not the case. Brainstorm meetings lack proper strategic grounding. Leadership is missing. These sessions are neither engaging nor motivating. What begins with good intentions meanders into a place no one wants to go.

  • Only 6 percent strongly agree brainstorm meetings are well-grounded strategically.
  • Only 6 percent strongly agree individuals leading brainstorm meetings are well-trained and -qualified.
  • Only 10 percent strongly agree individuals leading brainstorm meetings maximize the potential of all participants in the room.
  • Only 13 percent strongly agree individuals leading brainstorm meetings encourage the thinking of more junior people.
  • Only 14 percent strongly agree individuals leading brainstorm meetings make everyone feel their ideas have equal merit.

Imperative that we rethink

If you’re going to continue to have people within your company conduct and participate in brainstorms, it’s imperative that we rethink the way these meetings are being planned and structured.

Our research suggests that even at best, half of the ideas that exist in a brainstorm get expressed. Very often the best ones don’t get expressed, yet participants may walk out feeling like it was a productive meeting. So what can you do?

In terms of new-school solutions, everything from mind-mapping apps to apps designed specifically for ideation sessions exist online to help you and your organization facilitate better brainstorming sessions. Many of them are free. Candor, an app designed by Kellogg School of Management Professor Loran Nordgren, is a convenient way to generate, capture, organize and evaluate ideas while bypassing some of the main obstacles posed by traditional brainstorming. Ideas are generated in advance and then discussed and evaluated in person – which increases the number and diversity of ideas that are brought to the table.

For old-school solutions, try investing in the right people and processes. If you or your organization are hesitant to try some of the automated solutions such as the one described above, perhaps now is a good time to invest in training the best individuals in your organization to facilitate productive brainstorming meetings.

Thirty-five years ago, as a freshly-minted undergrad at a Chicago ad agency, I was invited to fly to Boston for a two-day Synectics new product development workshop. Four decades later, I can’t forget those two days. The biggest lesson I learned was how important the climate is in capturing ideas. In other words, how do we treat each other and receive new ideas? The sessions taught me that in order to be most productive during a brainstorm, we must create and foster a climate of positive energy and positive thinking. When individuals are free to build upon the ideas of others (rather than using their critical skills to poke holes in ideas), then you are in the zone of great brainstorming.

Recently, I introduced a pocket guide for better brainstorming, and handed one out to each employee at our company. I called it The Five Commandments for Better Brainstorming and it’s intended to be used as both a reminder and a warning for anyone at our agency who is considering scheduling an ideation session.

Thou shall encourage wild and exaggerated ideas. Isn’t it always easier to tame a wild idea than it is to think of an immediately valid one in the first place? In the beginning of a brainstorming session, encourage wild ideas. The wilder the idea, the better.

Thou shall generate quantity – not quality – early on. In the beginning of the session, quantity trumps quality, despite our natural inclinations to workshop/discuss the merits of each idea that comes up. Temper that inclination by simply keeping the ideas short – no in-depth explanations and justifications at this point. Save that for later.

Thou shall postpone and withhold your judgments. Ideas in this stage are not to be judged based on their merits. Our natural inclination oftentimes is to immediately consider the negatives of someone else’s idea (while extolling the positives of our own ideas). But in the early stages of a brainstorm, reserve all judgment. Even seemingly foolish ideas can spark some better, more salient ones. Record all ideas.

Every person and every idea has equal worth. This is a point that can truly make or break a brainstorming session. When you ignore just one person’s idea, you are tacitly sending the message that their ideas/their opinions aren’t worth hearing. This will immediately shut them down and they more or less have license to walk out of the room. Every person has a valid viewpoint and a unique perspective, so the best facilitators encourage participation from everyone. Keep in mind that group brainstorming may not be everyone’s strong suit. Some people won’t proactively offer an idea and will need to be asked to share. Some people aren’t comfortable verbalizing ideas, so maybe they could write their idea down and pass it forward. This where solutions like the Candor app can reap rewards.

Thou shall build on the ideas put forth by others. Ideas are the bones of the skeleton that make up the fully-realized concept. So it’s all a beginning. Can ideas be combined to explore new possibilities? How can each idea be built upon to make up something that is more fully realized? It’s just as valuable to be able to adapt and improve other people’s ideas as it is to generate the initial idea.

Positive experiences for all

There are countless resources online that can help your organization build a better brainstorm but if you choose to do nothing else, please try to make them positive experiences for all who are involved. Be sure that the person leading the brainstorm is someone who understands the importance of capturing everyone’s thoughts, not just the ones that tickle their particular fancy. The cost of markers and those giant Post-it pads pales in comparison to the price of lost intellectual capital. Because there is nothing more defeating than making a brainstorm session the place where your organization’s talent and great ideas go to die.