Brainstorm Better: The #1 Thing That Holds Back Creativity

There are countless written pieces out there talking about the “right” way to brainstorm. Brainstorming enthusiasts have researched the most effective ways to brainstorm, and each has evidence about how and why brainstorming works or doesn’t work.

Just check out this one:

Brainstorming the Ultimate Guide

And this one:

Stop Brainstorming and Start Sprinting

And there’s also this:

What is Brainstorming, How to Brainstorm, and 15 Effective Techniques

All of them have fantastic information, but the common theme is this:

THE #1 REASON that holds back creativity in any environment is THE INNATE HUMAN FEAR OF LOOKING STUPID.

Humans naturally want to save face, and that includes ourselves, who we work for, and the people who work for us. As much as we would like to put people in a room and say “hey no idea is stupid, ALL ideas are valid, even the crazy ones”, there will always be some of us that will naturally hold back.

Psychologically, it's not natural for us to put ourselves in that vulnerable space, no matter how much we are reassured that it's safe.

So if we are leaders, how do we make it safe?

How do we encourage ourselves and those who work for us that  ALL ideas are valid so we can critically think about the ones that will actually work?


Every person has a different temperament when it comes to social risk. In this case, we risk putting our possibly bad ideas out there for our peers and employers to see.

We need to give those with a LOW tolerance to SOCIAL RISK a chance to contribute BEFORE putting them in a group.

But I can hear this concern:

“Sometimes our businesses are huge! How can we possibly focus on every individual and each of their creative needs?”

The KEY is to focus on the INDIVIDUAL then focus on the GROUP.

First, you give people the chance and autonomy to come up with ideas on their own time.


  1. PROVIDE THE OBSERVATION (ie. Sales were low this past year)
  2. DEFINE THE QUESTION based on the observation (ie. How can we improve sales this coming year?)
  3. ALLOW HYPOTHESIS: allow each person to come up with their own hypothesis on solving the problem.

“But what if people don’t participate?”

That is OKAY. Not everyone works well individually. Some people need a group to feel inspired.

This is when you bring people together.

Group brainstorming sessions aren’t always productive because they either aren’t
1) focused on a single question, or
2) your team is full of people with different tolerances to social risk.

That’s why you first focus on the individual by sending out the OBSERVATION and defined brainstorming QUESTION, then you focus on the group by bringing people together to create collective ideas.

This is when things get really interesting.


  1. EXPLORE AND BUILD ON THE HYPOTHESIS that was collected (ie. What else might be true here? If this is true, how can that also be true?)

  2. DEBATE AND DISPROVE THE HYPOTHESIS by playing devil’s advocate. (ie. How can this be false? What are the gaps in this thinking? What are we not considering?)

The people who have a low tolerance for social risk, have the opportunity to provide their ideas anonymously and bypass the fear of looking stupid, and the people who are inspired by group environments now have the chance to have their voice heard.


If we, as leaders, help the people who work for us thrive based on accommodating their temperaments and personalities, we will have happier employees who produce better ideas and results.

Understanding people and giving them the autonomy to choose how they best express their creativity is VITAL to a healthy work environment. The problem-solving method explained here, also called the scientific method, is the most productive bridge to link the gap between the human element of social risk and the necessary business element of collecting innovative ideas that work.

Ember Blackfox

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