“Brainstorming” has become the cure-all when a new, innovative, creative idea is needed to solve a problem. The chances are pretty good that you’ve participated in “brainstorming” sessions sometime in your life. Organizations from church committees to executive leadership teams use the method as an idea-generating, consensus-building, group-think, feel-good way to boost productivity.
But the problem is: Brainstorming isn’t a great way to stimulate creativity and innovation. In fact, it may stifle it.
Yep, brainstorming doesn’t work, and we’re using it in the wrong way.
The Brainstorming “Rules”
The term “brainstorming” was coined over 70 years ago by advertising legend Alex Osborn, a principal in the Madison Avenue agency BBDO (he was the “O” in BBDO). Osborn used his brainstorming technique to help stimulate creative ideas for ad campaigns. He was looking for a habit that would give people the freedom of mind and action to spark off and reveal new ideas.
Osborn would host group-thinking, or “brainstorming” sessions, with approximately 12 employees. He believed that the result was a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas. To "think up" was the term he used to describe the process he developed, and that in turn came to be known as "brainstorming." Osborn’s oft-quoted as saying, "It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”
On the Plus Side
Since the days when Osborn proposed the technique to stimulate creative thinking in his advertising agency, brainstorming has spread throughout the business world. Today, brainstorming is used universally, and on a daily basis, in organizations large and small.
Creative thinking is the key to business innovation, and “brainstorming” is designed to stimulate creativity and problem-solving. Done right, it taps the human brain's capacity for lateral thinking and free association. Brainstorming is sometimes used to stimulate participation from people who might be otherwise unwilling to suggest a solution for fear of criticism or political retribution. It is also used when a team is fresh out of new ideas and needs some “group think” on a topic, and as a consensus-builder for fledgling ideas.
Osborn’s technique of “brainstorming” is as a group method of listing suggested ideas pertaining to a solution for a specific problem. In his book, Your Creative Power, Osborn outlined “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” Therein he coined the term “brainstorm,” which he defined as “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” As Jonah Lehrer recently wrote in The New Yorker, “The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.”
Osborn’s brainstorming method has four core components:
- Focus on quantity: The greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
- Encourage non-traditional ideas: Innovation comes from thinking outside the box, looking from new perspectives, and suspending old assumptions.
- Suspend criticism and negative feedback: Brainstorming focuses on generating ideas—not judging them.
- Build and improve ideas: Once an idea is presented, adding upon, improving, and growing that idea is encouraged.
So, What’s Wrong With That?
However, over the years, certain key elements of Osborn’s brainstorming method have been debunked. Others are often applied ineffectually because of poor training and application. For example, Osborn had no more than 12 people in a brainstorming session; how often have you been asked to participate in such an exercise with 30 other people?
Osborn claimed that brainstorming was more effective than individuals working alone in generating ideas. Recent research has questioned this conclusion. In fact, according to researchers, the exact opposite is true. (Jablin, F. M., Sorenson, R. L., & Seibold, D. R. (1978). Interpersonal perception and group brainstorming performance. Communication Quarterly, 26, 36-44)
Just think about the reality of when inspiration strikes. How often do you wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea—or have a flash of creative genius while you’re in the shower, stuck in traffic, or on the treadmill at the gym? I say you’re better off carrying a notebook to be ready to record the Eureka moment when inspiration strikes, than hoping it will happen in a florescent-lit conference room brainstorming session on a Thursday afternoon at 4pm.
Additionally, the idea that quantity begets quality has been proven scientifically and logically wrong; you simply don’t get better work through sheer volume of product. And research has shown that the assumption that criticism and dissent stifle creativityis incorrect as well; in fact, debate actually elevates good ideas to the top. Finally, the idea that in a corporate, hierarchical work environment, we can wash away peer-pressure, performance anxiety. and political gamesmanship by calling an exercise “brainstorming” and saying “no idea is a bad idea”—you’re out of your mind. (Stroebe, W.; Diehl, M. & Abakoumkin, G. (1992). "The illusion of group effectivity," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin)
We’ve adopted the concept over the years to the point where it seems every idea in every organization needs to be “brainstormed.” It is time to stop. “Brainstorming” has devolved to the point where it is more about “gaining consensus” than coming up with innovative ideas. Let’s call a spade a spade. It is great to gain consensus, and it is great to come up with innovative ideas.
So, to summarize:
- You’re more likely to come up with a great idea in the shower than during a brainstorming session.
- Quantity of ideas does not beget quality.
- Dissent stimulates (not stifles) new ideas.
- Peer-pressure cannot be eliminated in hierarchal work environments.
Another Way to Look at It…
What does work in Osborn’s brainstorming methodology is the idea that presenting concepts to a group, asking for feedback, and getting a “piling on” to a fledgling idea can help as feel-good way to boost productivity and creativity. I call this the “Add and Enhance” component of idea generation.
You see, an idea that may have initially sounded off-the-wall may actually turn out to be a plausible idea… with a little modification. Or one person may have a great kernel of an idea but not know how to execute it, where another has the missing pieces of the puzzle (apologies for the mixed metaphor—perhaps you can take that idea and improve upon it!). Taking an idea, and then trying to make it work by “adding and enhancing” is a great way to “brainstorm” a solution to a problem. It is also a good team building exercise, and a great way to build team-support for a great idea.
So here is my version of how to use “brainstorming.:”
- Assign a problem to a team. Give each team member time to think about it (so she has lots of shower time, and can sweat it out on the treadmill).
- Have the team members “pre-write” ideas prior to the brainstorm, and come prepared to present to the group.
- Have one team leader present the ideas (anonymously, to avoid peer-pressure and performance anxiety).
- Ask the team to “Add and Enhance” each idea, then come to agreement on the best course of action.
So, I’d like to redefine Osborn’s definition of "think up." Rather than create out of thin air, I say we “up-think” the process and make a brainstorming session the perfect place to “add and enhance” great ideas.
I say, isn’t it time that “brainstorming” inspired innovation, rather than stifle it? Who’s with me?