Do you dread brainstorming sessions? When someone says, “Let’s break out the sticky notes and markers,” are you running for the nearest exit? It’s probably because you haven’t been in an effective brainstorming session before.

Here are three of the most common reasons brainstorming sessions fail — and what you can do about them.

1. Just Follow the Directions (Most Teams Don’t)

Many people think they teach their teams to be creative by just reading the directions of a brainstorming activity, and voila! The team will produce a torrent of creative ideas.

Here are my directions for brainstorming ideas:

  • Defer judgment.
  • Strive for quantity.
  • Seek wild and unusual ideas.
  • Build on other ideas.

Most of the time, teams read but don’t follow these directions. Many brainstorming sessions are mislabeled and are actually just discussions or, worse, venting sessions. Following these simple, proven steps will help your team create breakthrough ideas.

2. Creativity Requires Practice

Great sports teams practice. Great symphony orchestras practice. Great fire departments practice. They practice so that when they must perform at peak effectiveness under stressful conditions, they can execute well.

When was the last time you “practiced” being creative? It has probably been a while. Practice being creative by warming up. Here’s how:

  1. Have a facilitator manage the process. Review the directions for brainstorming.
  2. Present the problem to be solved as a creative question beginning with the words, “How to…,” “How might…” or, “What might be all the…?”
  3. Generate ideas following the brainstorming guidelines. As participants voice ideas to the group, the facilitator records them on a flip chart, or the participants write them on sticky notes and hand them to the facilitator, who places them on the flip chart.

During a warm-up session, give the group a time limit (five minutes is recommended) and a quota for the number of ideas generated (25).

Most warm-up exercises are silly, and they’re designed that way on purpose. Many of the ideas will be absurd or impractical, which is intentional. It is imperative that you do a short warm-up exercise before attempting to generate ideas on the “serious” problem. Don’t let the silly factor deter you.

Here are a few favorite warm-up questions:

  • What might be all the ways to improve a refrigerator?
  • How do you get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub?
  • What might you do with 50,000 bowling balls that are flat on one side?

You can also make up your own! The key is to make it simple, and make it fun.

3. Make Sure You Are Solving a Well-defined Problem

It does no one any good to generate ideas to solve the wrong problem.

Most people believe that creativity is coming up with a great idea, but the key to creativity is solving the right problem. Challenge your initial impression of the problem. This process is not about generating ideas. It is about generating questions that challenge your initial definition of the problem. Generate ideas after you have clearly identified the problem to solve.

Then, the language you use to describe a problem will dictate the kinds of solutions you generate. For example, “We don’t have enough money” is a bad question. In fact, it’s a statement. When you hear that statement, your brain says, “OK, we don’t have any money.” Decision made. Move on.

Let’s try a different approach: “How might we raise the money for this project?” or, “How might we reduce the cost of this project?” These questions are good and creative. Questions framed this way provoke your mind to search for solutions. They tell your brain, “Let’s go find some answers — and, because we are using the word ‘might,’ they can be any answers. We haven’t made any decisions yet. Let’s look for options.”

A creative question puts forth what you want to create, not what you want to avoid.

If you navigate around these three pitfalls, you will significantly increase the effectiveness of your brainstorming sessions. Not only will you generate more innovative ideas in a short period of time, but your team will have fun doing it.