Does Brainstorming Deserve its Bad Rap?

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In the last few years, brainstorming has been shot down, put down, and dismissed.  Why? Has the brainstorm process lived past its usefulness?

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Since 1941, when Alex Osborn changed the culture of advertising with innovative, nonjudgmental thought-generating, brainstorming has been a major part of business.  Osborn described brainstorming as “a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members.”  He included specific rules including:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Go for large quantities of ideas
  • Build on each others ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

Osborn believed that this type of coordinated idea-generating would produce increased results.  Among the vast quantity of ideas produced, there were bound to be some gems.

However, critics feel that brainstorming is ineffective.  Some believe that it simply doesn't work and that the group setting actually limits creativity.

4 Problems With Brainstorming

Here are some problems critics have with brainstorming and some possible solutions:

1.  Gathering the right participants:  Having the right group of motivated, creative thinkers makes all the difference in having a successful brainstorming session.  Critics say it's too hard to get everyone to meet together and be at their peak at the same time. One suggestion is to use an online brainstorming chat-room, email, an app, or program where participants can add ideas as they come to them. This article by TechRepublic suggests five free tech tools that enhance brainstorms.

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Another issue with participants is that often they feel their ideas don't hold much power.  One technique to more effective brainstorming is to have the decision-makers in the room participating in the process.  Then there is greater likelihood that worthwhile ideas will be seriously considered and put into action.

2.  Free-riding:  Critics say brainstorming allows some participants to sit back and let others do all the mental and verbal work.  In some ways this critique doesn't allow for differing personality types.  Not every participant is an extrovert.  Many introverts prefer to sit back and mull over possible solutions, taking in others ideas before articulating their own.  One solution here is to improve the facilitator.  Perhaps the facilitators need to learn how to spark creativity in the team on a reliable basis.

3.  Stifled Creativity:  Critics often cite a 1958 Yale study that showed that independent students came up with twice the number of solutions to a problem than a brainstorming group did.  Is this type of “groupthink” a potential problem?  Despite Osborn's rules, people may fear being mentally mocked and then later openly derided in gossip circles for their contributions to the brainstorming session.  Furthermore, the process of brainstorming may limit ideas to follow a certain line of thinking, and in the end narrow the range of possibilities.

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Why does it have to be one way or the other?  Isn't it possible for individuals to problem solve on their own and then meet together to discuss ideas in a group brainstorm session?  This solution is the best of both worlds.

4.  Debate:  A 2003 study by Charlan Nemeth at the University of Berkeley demonstrated that when groups were told to debate brainstormed ideas, they generated 20% more ideas.  By challenging the ideas, they were able to improve and build upon them.  Perhaps the “rules” of brainstorming just need to be adjusted.

Don't Give Up On The Brainstorm Tool

Although brainstorming may have gotten a bad rap, it is a worthwhile tool in your creativity tool box. Could it be true that bad brainstorming doesn't work? Although some people may say all marriage is bad because 50% of marriages end in divorce, what about the other 50%? Similarly, not all brainstorms are useless.  It is worth the effort to amp up our brainstorms as well as develop other strategies for generating ideas.

My philosophy is to never stop innovating the way we innovate.  This includes innovating the tools we use such as brainstorms.

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