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Does Brainstorming Deserve its Bad Rap?

In the last few years, brainstorming has been shot down, put down, and dismissed. Why? Has the brainstorming process lived past its usefulness? Since 1941, when Alex Osborn changed the culture of advertising with innovative, nonjudgmental thought-generating, brainstorming has been a major part of th

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
brainstorming brainstorm innovation ideation process
brainstorming a bad rap

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

Since 1941, when Alex Osborn changed the culture of advertising with innovative, nonjudgmental thought-generating, brainstorming has been a major part of the 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 other's ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

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

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

Never stop innovating the way you innovate.

Phil McKinney

4 Problems With Brainstorming

Here are some problems critics have with brainstorming and some potential 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 a program where participants can add ideas as they come to them. This article by TechRepublic suggests five free tech tools that enhance brainstorms.

Another issue with participants is that often they feel their ideas hold little power. One technique for more effective brainstorming is to have the decision-makers in the room participate in the process. Then there is a 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 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 reliably.

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. The process of brainstorming may limit ideas to follow a certain line of thinking, and in the end, narrow the range of possibilities.

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

4. Debate: A 2003 study by Charlan Nemeth at the University of Berkeley showed that when groups were told to debate brainstormed ideas, they generated 20% more ideas. By challenging the ideas, they could 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 creative toolbox. 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.

If you are looking for world-class facilitation of a brainstorming session, consider working with an innovation agency like Techtrend Group.

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Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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