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10 Rules for a Brilliant Brainstorm

The best part of campaigning is that you get to constantly come up with new ideas to reach people, raise money, and change the world. The hardest part of campaigning is that you have to constantly come up with new ideas to reach people, raise money, and change the world.


M+R.jpgThere are lots of ways to generate ideas. Really, really smart brainstorms are one of them. Brainstorms help us push boundaries, try new directions, think differently, and find creative treasure among the heaps of boring trash.

Many of M+R’s most successful campaigns began in a wild free-for-all of idea exchange—but the truth is, consistently great and productive brainstorms require practice, intention, and structure.

We pride ourselves on our brainstorming game. Every M+R office has (at least) one weekly all-staff brainstorm to crank out new ideas. To begin, every weekly ‘storm starts with a warm-up that gets everyone in the room out of the I’ve-got-a-million-tasks-to-complete-today headspace and into the dusty creative corners of your brain. Quick, 5 minute games and gimmicks—Mad Libs. Family Feud. Rebrand Thanksgiving. Also, there are snacks. Also beer. Also coconut La Croix for people who aren’t into beer but are into the ultimate tropical-flavored refreshment.*

From there, it’s all about keeping the swell of ideas moving and energized while still controlled and productive. To help guide you (and ourselves!), we’ve created 10 Rules for a Brilliant Brainstorm.

1. There are no rules. Wait, no, there are ten rules. That’s what we’re doing here. Point is, try not to feel too tied down by the rules – these are methods to get yourself out of your own way.

2. Show up, every time. That means sticking to a schedule, arriving on time, and not checking your email or multitasking during the brainstorm. And it means paying attention, staying involved, and contributing – maintaining presence physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Yeah, it’s just that hippie (and it works).

3. Your job is not to come up with the best idea. Your job is to keep the brainstorm moving forward by contributing thoughts, building on what others say, and keeping up the energy in the room. This is about collaboration, not competition, so take risks and don’t hold back what’s in your head.

4. Don’t say “straw dog” or otherwise declare that you don’t like your own idea. This gives others permission to ignore your contribution. Even worse, it makes everyone else question whether they need to preface their own ideas with “straw dog.” It’s okay if your idea is half-baked, or not quite right – just say it anyway, and maybe someone else can build from it. Or maybe not, and that’s fine, we’ll keep going.

5. Saying that an idea is bad or won’t work doesn’t help. If you think someone else’s idea won’t be effective, try to add something to it or tweak so it will work. “I don’t think that will work, unless we make it so that….” Or come up with something else and throw it into the mix. If you can’t do that, keep quiet for a minute and let the conversation shift to new ideas – but don’t just say you don’t like something and kill discussion.

6. Saying that an idea is good doesn’t really help, either! If you like something someone else says, you can say so. But don’t just +1 — at the very least say why you like it, and try to add something. “That sounds like it would be great for fundraising, and we could promote it on social media by….” As any good improv-er will tell you,“yes, and” rules the day.**

7. Make jokes, try something silly, get a little off topic. Brainstorms work best when people are feeling loose and energized – and your smartass comment might be what triggers someone else’s brilliant idea. Get stuck? Try something different…“what idea would get us fired?” “What would tell your mom about this campaign?”

8. Say the obvious thing. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. Just because something’s been done a million times before or seems too simple to count as a great idea doesn’t mean it’s not what we’re looking for. And just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean anyone else has thought of it.

FUN FACT: We brainstormed a bunch of different ways to present this list of brainstorming rules (Beyoncé gifs! Calvin and Hobbes strips! Buzzfeed-flavored “The Ten People Who are Ruining Your Brainstorms (and how to fix them)”! Somehow work in references to that Mark Wahlberg movie The Perfect Storm!).

But as is so often the case, keeping things obvious, simple, and direct was what worked. The best part is, we can save these ideas for future posts, like our upcoming 15 Things Marky Mark’s Career Can Teach You About Digital Ad Placement Strategy.

9. Include ideas that have failed before. Maybe it’ll work better for a different audience or in a different context, or maybe someone else can find a new twist on your failed campaign that will be successful.

10. Just say things! When we have lots of ideas, at least some of them are bound to be not total crap! But we can’t get there if everyone is waiting for someone else to have the big idea, or holding back when their own ideas aren’t immediately amazing, or asking a million clarifying questions.

Our brainstorms are not always going to produce a perfect, polished, workable plan – but if we can come up with a broad range of creative, interesting concepts, we’ll have the seeds that will blossom into innovative, groundbreaking, effective campaigns.

Believe in yourself, in your own creativity, and in your coworkers. Then show up and start saying things.

* Doesn’t that sound like an awesome work environment? That’s because M+R is an awesome place to work. And hey, look, we are hiring for a bunch of open positions!

** Speaking of improv, Tina Fey’s fantastic book Bossypants, which you should totally read, includes this amazing piece that says everything about the kind of person you should strive to be when you’re brainstorming or doing any kind of creative collaboration. It’s long. And so, so worth it.

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