Recovering from a brainstorm fail

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5 simple steps when things don’t go according to plan

Over the years, I’ve hosted a lot of brainstorms. Some great ones. Some good ones. And, frankly, some downright awful ones. Sometimes, the disaster was my own doing – through inexperience, overconfidence or poor planning. On occasion, it was things completely out of my control. For example, a number of years ago, I was facilitating a brainstorm for a CPG client. We’d mapped out a thorough plan, organized a strong group of thinkers and generally set ourselves up for success. The brainstorm kicked off and was proceeding according to plan, and then something unexpected happened. The door to our conference room swung open and in walked a c-level executive. “What’s going on in here?”

As soon as we answered his question, he said, “Oh, perfect. I’ve got some great ideas for this.” He sat down, and immediately started rattling off his ideas. Since he hadn’t been a part of the briefing or any of the planning sessions, his ideas weren’t really relevant to the specific challenge we were attempting to address in our meeting. After several attempts ranging from gentle redirects to more forceful assurances that we were capable of tackling this challenge without him, he still didn’t take a hint and proceeded to talk for the remainder of our allotted time. At the end of the brainstorm, he pulled me aside to express concerns that the group didn’t seem very engaged, and there was no apparent agenda for the meeting. To say I was frustrated is a massive understatement.

If you plan and facilitate enough brainstorms, you’ll inevitably find yourself in a similar situation. So, what do you do when things don’t go according to plan. 

How do you recover from a brainstorm fail?

  1. Take a step back – It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. After all your hard work, you’re going to feel frustrated, embarrassed and even angry. The best thing to do is take some deep breaths. Avoid the urge to send a nasty-gram (a scathing email) or go explode all over some unsuspecting co-worker. That won’t solve this problem, and will undoubtedly cause others. 
  2. Look at what you’ve got with a critical eye – With a calmer perspective, look at the output from your brainstorm. Was it really as bad as it seemed in the moment? Is there anything you can salvage? There might be some unpolished gems in whatever you accomplished before things went sideways. Sift through the debris of your plan and see what you can set aside. It’s better than nothing.  
  3. Analyze where things went wrong – Look back at your plan. Was there something you missed or failed to account for? Did someone or some team fail to provide input on the brief? Did someone have an axe to grind? Did you strike the wrong balance of people (e.g- too many wildcards? too many devil’s advocates? etc) Or was it truly a black swan event… something no amount of planning would or could have prepared you for? No matter how insignificant, you want to learn something, so you can avoid future disasters.
  4. Pull together your A Team – In all likelihood, your attendees are as shellshocked and frustrated as you are. Avoid the urge to gather the group back together for a redo. They’ll likely be hesitant to set aside more of their valuable time after getting burned once. If you’re lucky, you have an A Team of thinkers you’ve had experience and success with in the past. Now’s the time to tap into this known quantity, since they know your methods and have seen past results, they’ll look past the disaster and help you recover. If you don’t have an A Team, ask co-workers you have a good report with. Give them some background on the situation (without throwing anyone under the bus) and see if they’ll give you some brain power. 
  5. Rebuild and relaunch – Once you’ve got things in a good place, bring the key stakeholders together from the original meeting and walk them through whatever outputs you generated with the help of your A Team. You want them to see the first meeting wasn’t a total failure. You may not have achieved your initial goal, but there was value to be found, and you persevered to find it. Offer them the opportunity to build and develop on those ideas, so they feel engaged and invested in the output. But don’t just stop with the ideas. Look back at your whole process. What have you learned that you can implement in the future?

Don’t let a brainstorm fail drag you down. It isn’t fun, but from time-to-time they happen to everyone. By facing up to it and overcoming it, you’ll ultimately be a better, more prepared facilitator in the future. 

Good luck!

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