The Case for Brainstorming

Decried by critics as producing only a sprinkle of ideas, rather than a deluge, brainstorming’s proponents say there’s no substitute if it’s done creatively.
October 6, 2014

Much has changed since New York advertising executive Alex Osborn advocated group brainstorming in books he wrote in the 1940s and 1950s. He popularized the idea that problem-solving and innovation are enhanced by harnessing a group’s collective knowledge and building on each other’s ideas.

Osborn’s four tenets: Don’t permit criticism, say all ideas that come to mind, strive for quantity and build on the ideas presented by others. Now his principles have morphed into variations such as brainwriting (done via writing, not speaking), brainswarming, and mind mapping (making a diagram with a central concept in the center, and images, symbols and words branching from it). Technology has enabled brainstorming to be conducted in new ways, such as “hackathons.” Enterprise social networking allows it to occur in multiple offices simultaneously. IBM conducts online brainstorming “jams”—one had more than 150,000 participants from 104 countries and launched 10 new IBM businesses, the company says.

Yet many skeptics question the effectiveness of groups spouting spontaneous ideas in a criticism-free setting. They say brainstorming produces something more like a sprinkle than a deluge of ideas. “It doesn’t work,” declared one national magazine story in 2012, echoing the sentiments of other critics.

But brainstorming does have its proponents, including Paul Paulus, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has been involved in more than 100 experiments and studies assessing group creativity and group decision-making. If done badly, brainstorming is unproductive, but it’s valuable when done right, Paulus says. “Problems often need multiple perspectives.” Plenty of people agree with him.

Here’s what Paulus and other experts say works:

• Paulus favors informing the brainstorming group of the subject in advance of the meeting. People tend to start thinking about solutions and ideas in their free time. He suggests they keep notebooks handy to jot down their epiphanies. Everybody is then prepared to share what he or she comes up with and build on the group’s ideas together.

• “It’s very important to structure the problem,” Paulus says. If the topic is too broad, too vague, the results will be, too. He suggests dividing the issue into subareas that the group can focus on one by one. “You get way more ideas,” he says. “People dig more deeply.”

• “The wording of the challenge will be critical in defining the direction the group moves,” adds Leon Segal, a psychologist and founder of Innovationship, a Silicon Valley firm that teaches and trains people in the process of design thinking and innovation.

• Because some participants may get their best ideas late at night, and others before the sun rises, Segal says, “You have to set up a system that addresses the various needs of the participants. There has to be a… library or depository of ideas” that everybody can view.

• Some say letting the boss take part in a face-to-face brainstorming session can stymie the flow of ideas. Participants won’t feel free to offer whimsical ideas for fear of appearing foolish, while others may parrot what they think the boss wants to hear, Segal explains. “It can kill a group.”

• Experts say groups should be kept small. “The more people you have, the fewer ideas you’ll generate,” Paulus says. But they should be large enough to include people with diverse perspectives and expertise. Dividing into subgroups may be a way to do both. Four groups of five are preferable to one group of 20, he says. Some research indicates that five is the optimum number in a group.

Brainstorming sessions must have a time limit. An hour to 75  minutes is the maximum before the group’s energy begins to flag, Segal says. Taking brief breaks helps  too.

• Even the most carefully structured brainstorming session will fizzle, not sizzle, however, without a skilled facilitator. “It’s a learned skill,” Segal says. “Like any learned skill, it takes practice.”

“It pays to have an outside facilitator, or somebody from Human Resources who is objective,” says Edward Rockey, who recently retired as a professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University and is now a coach for executive creativity. “They must be supportive and accepting. The facilitator has to enforce ground rules of trust, safety and mutual support.”

• Participants also should be encouraged after a brainstorming session to reflect, Paulus says. “Usually, ideas keep percolating.” One or more follow-up sessions may be conducted to capitalize on this, he adds.

• The best brainstorming ideas are about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane, however, if they aren’t smartly evaluated. The group can be asked to reconvene to synthesize common threads in order to determine what ideas should be considered for adoption, Segal says. “It’s finding common denominators.”

Paulus isn’t so sure. “Groups… have a bias to feasible ideas over original ideas. That makes sense of course, but with additional deliberations, groups might be able to modify the original ideas to make them more feasible. At this point there is no good data available to suggest how to improve the selection of the best ideas.”

• Some ideas should be implemented, experts agree, or participants will feel they wasted their time. That, Segal warns, “is not good for the [company] culture.”

• You also need to encourage group participants to shed preconceptions. Creativity is a “scare word,” cautions Rockey. “When people hear the word creativity, they think of the arts and entertainment,” he says, but invention requires scientific and engineering creativity. Don’t take his word for it. Einstein said, “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

Here are a few techniques to spur creativity:

Link the unlinked. Innovative coin-laundry owners did this by including fitness centers or tanning booths for customers waiting for their wash to be finished, Rockey says. One clothing manufacturer added a square patch of microfiber material on shirttails to use for cleaning eyeglasses or smartphones.

The staff tries to do this at Onboardly, a Canadian public relations and marketing firm for startups based in Moncton, New Brunswick. “We corral the entire team together for an hour and try to make associations with objects that would otherwise not be correlated—a diaper ad and a toothbrush, a car part and a shaving cream ad, or a new book and a carpet cleaning product,” CEO Renee Warren says. “Each time we do it, we come up with at least a dozen new ideas, approaches or topics and angles.”

See the ordinary as strange, and vice versa. Take something as mundane as a loaf of bread. If you were an aboriginal, it would be wondrous, Rockey says. “You’d squeeze it, smell it, throw it up in the air and catch it. You have to look at something we take for granted with fresh eyes.”

Jodie Shaw, president and chief marketing officer at Rapport Leadership International in Las Vegas, starts some brainstorming meetings by dividing participants into groups and handing members randomly shaped objects—a pool noodle, a square building block and so on. “Each group has five minutes to come up with a unique invention for the object, give it a unique name and present a two-minute product pitch to the remainder of the team,” she says. The exercise relaxes everybody and gets them thinking creatively, she says.

Channel your inner child. What ideas might a fifth-grader think up? The staffers at Spear One, a marketing programs firm in Irving, Texas, “bring caffeine, chocolate, silly putty, toys, color markers” and other props to meetings to brainstorm client projects, president Mike May says. Other companies have brainstorm participants start by drawing or doodling with crayons.

Consult your ABCD—Amazing Board of Creative Directors. What would Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Thomas Edison and other famous people suggest?

At Kessel Communications, with offices in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, the brainstorm facilitator places the name of famous people in an envelope, with each participant receiving a different name, says Joel Kessel, company president. They get five to seven minutes to write down what they think their famous person would do. Then they share this with the rest of the group, which builds on those thoughts. The exercise “gets the creative juices flowing much more quickly in a fun way and typically results in way more ideas than what one would normally get just asking the group for ideas,” Kessel says.

Brainstorming has spawned variations that seek to improve upon the original idea. Learn more about mindmapping and brainwriting.

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