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Brainstorming: The Idea-generation Technique that Refuses to Die

March 27, 2013


After reading an article by Debra Kaye in Fast Company magazine entitled “Why Innovation By Brainstorming Doesn’t Work,” Jeffrey Phillips was prompted to ask, “Don’t we have an article every three months telling us that brainstorming doesn’t work? Can’t we find a new punching bag?” [“Brainstorming: Innovation’s punching bag,” Innovate on Purpose, 1 March 2013] Phillips believes that brainstorming gets dissed because too often it is improperly used. He argues:

“I don’t hold a particular brief for or against brainstorming. But we should consider it in its context. Brainstorming is a tool for generating ideas. You can choose to like and enjoy brainstorming, or you can choose to generate ideas using hundreds of other creativity and idea generation tools. But that’s all SCAMPER or brainwriting or mind mapping or any of hundreds of other potential aids are – just tools. And tools used with insufficient preparation or for the wrong application or by an inexperienced user are often blamed for the outcomes.”

I agree with Phillips (and Kaye) that brainstorming, as commonly practiced, is a tool misused. As I’ve previously noted, brainstorming is normally considered a group creativity technique. Its designed purpose is to generate a significant number of ideas for solving a problem in a short amount of time. According to Wikipedia, the method was first popularized in 1953 “by Alex Faickney Osborn in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming.” [“Brainstorming“] As it turns out, Osborn was wrong. Brainstorming was first proven ineffective in 1958, “when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output.” That research demonstrated that “the same number of people [could] generate more and better ideas separately than together.” [“Forget Brainstorming,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Newsweek, 12 July 2010]. Bronson and Merryman continue:

“According to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don’t work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn’t mince words: it’s ‘garbage.’ Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs focus solely on imagination exercises, expression of feelings, or imagery. They pander to an easy, unchallenging notion that all you have to do is let your natural creativity out of its shell.”

The Wikipedia article confirms what Bronson and Merryman reported about the traditional brainstorming technique. It goes on to reveal:

“Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, when applied in a traditional group setting, researchers have not found evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, conventional brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they are actually less effective than individuals working independently.”

In previous posts, I’ve noted several of the reasons mentioned above for the lack of brainstorming effectiveness. First, of course, is fear. People fear that others will think their ideas are stupid so they don’t bring them up. “Research from scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute offers an explanation of why many people become, in effect, less intelligent in small group settings.” [“Speaking Up Is Hard to Do: Researchers Explain Why,” by Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 7 February 2012] You might call this situational stupidity. Bernstein continues:

“If we think others in a group are smarter, we may become dumber, temporarily losing both our problem-solving ability and what the researchers call our ‘expression of IQ.’ The clamming-up phenomenon seems to be more common in women and in people with higher IQs, according to the report, published in January [2012] in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.”

Bernstein reports that in group settings, some people start to “overthink” and most of those thoughts are about what they are not saying. That leaves no room for thoughts about what they should be talking about. The “overthinking” phenomenon is a good segue to the second impediment to brainstorming; one that is even more significant than fear of speaking out — mental multitasking. People have difficulty holding on to more than one thought. In most group brainstorming sessions, people are expected to hold on to a thought while waiting for their turn to bring it to the attention of the group, while they are also supposed to be stimulated by the thoughts of others. Research has proven, however, that only after they have let their thought go are they free to come up with other ideas or concentrate on the ideas of other participants. As a result, many people just ignore what’s happening the in the group while waiting for the right moment to share their thought.


If a person has a lot of thoughts they want to share, they may completely tune out the conversation around them while they write down all of their ideas so they don’t forget them before rejoining the discussion. In other words, they turn group brainstorming into individual brainstorming. Despite the fact that brainstorming has failed to live up to its billing, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a place in your kit of tools. I think that individual brainstorming is a great idea as homework for a group setting. If used that way, people come to a meeting prepared to listen (since their own ideas are already down on paper) and contribute (either verbally or by submitting their written thoughts). This practice overcomes both of the drawbacks noted above. Kaye writes:

“Part of what we know about the brain makes it clear why the best new ideas don’t emerge from formal brainstorming. First, the brain doesn’t make connections in a rigid atmosphere. There is too much pressure and too much influence from others in the group. The ‘free association’ done in brainstorming sessions is often shackled by peer pressure and as a result generates obvious responses. In fact, psychologists have documented the predictability of free association.”

I think that Phillips might agree with my preferred approach to brainstorming. He writes:

“Brainstorming has a bad reputation, there’s no doubt about it. That’s because brainstorming is typically a poorly administered meeting with little preparation, the wrong participants with the wrong scope, and often one or more individuals who have a personal agenda. ANY meeting that lacks good preparation, a consistent scope and goal and the right people is doomed for failure. … As to the ‘studies’ that demonstrate that individuals can generate more or better ideas by themselves, I’m open to the theory, but I know that teams move ideas through companies, not individuals. It may be the case that we would all generate ‘better’ ideas, if we could establish a quantitative gauge for betterness, if we all generated ideas by ourselves. But that activity would be pointless, because just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a group to move a nascent idea from concept to product or service.”

The hybrid approach (individual brainstorming coupled with group discussion) avoids many of the pitfalls associated with traditional brainstorming while embracing Phillips’ notion that a group must own and advance ideas if they are going to be successful. When considering the use of individual brainstorming, the activity must obviously begin with a description of the problem that needs addressing. Chuck Frey, Senior Editor at InnovationManagement.se, believes that word lists are a powerful but “often overlooked … tool for brainstorming.” [“Random Word Brainstorming: A Simple, Powerful and Effective Ideation Technique,” 26 December 2012] He explains:

“By exposing our minds to random words that are unconnected to our problem or challenge, they provoke new associations, much like the ripple that spreads outward in all directions after you drop a pebble into a pond. The mind loves to make connections, and will do so, no matter how different two concepts are from each other.”

Frey goes on to offer four steps involved in this brainstorming technique. They are:

1. Select a random word: This word must be completely random and unrelated to your problem or challenge. There are several ways to ensure this. First, you can use an existing list of random words, which may be found several places online here, here and here. [Michael] Michalko also provides a list of evocative words in his book, Thinkertoys. A second source of random words is a dictionary. Open it to any page, close your eyes and point your finger at the page. That’s your random word. You can also do this with other types of books, magazines, newspapers – whatever is handy.

2. Think of as many things as you can that are associated with the random word you have selected and write them down. An excellent way to do this is to break your word down into its characteristics. What is its function? What are its aesthetics? How is it used? What metaphors can be associated with it? What is the opposite of your word? Write down as many associated ideas and concepts as possible. If you get stuck, a thesaurus can help you find synonyms, antonyms and other related words. Another powerful tool is Visual Thesaurus, which displays a rich 3-D mind map of associated words and concepts.

3. Force connections between your random word and your problem or challenge, using the characteristics you identified in the previous step.

4. Write your ideas down. Failing to do so, Michalko points out, ‘is like sitting in a shower of gold with nothing but a pitchfork.'”

Frey notes that many ideas that emerge will be toss-aways. “All it takes,” he writes, “is one valuable idea to make your invest[ment] of time worthwhile.” He concludes:

“The ultimate benefit of word lists is that they help you to appreciate your brain’s awesome powers of association. As you cultivate this skill, you’ll come to realize that it can serve you any time, anywhere – not just when you’re not sitting in your favorite brainstorming spot with a cup of coffee and a list of random words. Literally anything in your environment can become stimuli that you can use to make connections with your current problems and challenges. And that can open up a world of possibilities and new ideas that can help you to transform your world.”

Given the fact that brainstorming can be a useful tool when used correctly, Phillips writes, “So, can we give brainstorming a rest? It’s been the favorite punching bag for far too long.” He concludes:

“Let’s assert that many brainstorms aren’t successful, but as I’ve written before, that’s not a failure of the tools, but of the users. And if brainstorming doesn’t work for you, use any other creativity or idea generation technique that does – there are plenty. Just realize that idea generation is simply one step in an innovation process, and without good context and the ability to manage and evaluate ideas successfully, the best idea generation techniques on the planet are useless. Good innovation relies on a complex system of knowledge, insights, tools and people. Blaming innovation failure on brainstorming is pointing the finger of blame at a tool that is just one small portion of the process, when other equally or perhaps better tools exist. … As a friend used to say, good craftsmen never blame the tools for their problems.”

If generating creative ideas and turning them into innovative products was easy, there wouldn’t be so much written on the subject. There is no single tool or silver bullet approach to creativity and innovation. The kit of tools is large and every one of those tools needs to be used at the right time, in the right setting, with the right people if successful outcomes are to be achieved.

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