Brainstorming can be effective if it is performed properly. In this article, Jeffrey Baumgartner explores some of the weaknesses of traditional brainstorming and explores several potentially fruitful alternatives.
Brainstorming as a term has been around since the 1940s, when it was coined by Alex Osborn. It was later formulated into creative problem solving (CPS). Over the years, brainstorming has come to mean any kind of group idea generation activity. It has also become controversial, with some experts swearing by it – and others swearing at it!
In truth, brainstorming can be effective if performed properly. Let’s take a look at it. But, if you are not familiar with CPS, do read the article cited above before continuing.
What is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is the traditional way to generate lots of ideas on a specific issue and then determine which idea – or ideas – is the best solution. Brainstorming is most effective with diverse groups of 8-12 people and should be performed in a relaxed environment. If participants feel free to relax and joke around, they’ll stretch their minds further and therefore produce more creative ideas.
A brainstorming session requires a facilitator, a brainstorming space and something on which to write ideas, such as a white-board a flip chart or software tool. The facilitator’s responsibilities include guiding the session, encouraging participation and writing ideas down.
Brainstorming works best with a diverse group of people. Participants should come from various departments across the organisation and have different backgrounds. Even in specialist areas, outsiders can bring fresh ideas that can inspire the experts.
Assuming you had followed the CPS process, you will have a well defined creative challenge ready and waiting for ideas. You should announce the challenge to the participants in advance so they have time to think and research the issue.
Creativity exercises, relaxation exercises or other fun activities before the session can help participants relax their minds so that they will be more creative during the brainstorming session.
The traditional approach toward brainstorming
In a traditional brainstorming session, the facilitator writes the challenge on a whiteboard and then invites all participants shout out solutions while the facilitator writes them down on the whiteboard. There must be absolutely no criticizing of ideas. No matter how daft, how impossible or how silly an idea is, it must be written down. Laughing is to be encouraged. Criticism is not.
Typically, the aim should be to generate as many ideas as possible within a set time frame such as 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can set a target number of ideas, such as 100.
The problems with traditional group brainstorming
The traditional approach to brainstorming has been around since the 1950s and is still used frequently today. However, there is a slight problem with this approach. It has been proven again and again not to work for a number of reasons: Poor facilitation. Even trained facilitators who do not understand creative problem solving are often unable to properly manage a brainstorming event. Here are some reasons why
When one person shouts out an idea and the facilitator writes it down, other participants have to stop and listen before sharing their own ideas. At best this slows things down. At worst, people forget their ideas while waiting or are afraid to share their ideas which they feel are too different compared to the idea they just heard.
Criticizing ideas during the idea generation phase of brainstorming demotivates everyone. It tells participants that wacky ideas will get you in trouble. But the wackiest ideas are usually the most creative. So, any squelching basically communicates to participants that creative ideas are not wanted. And participants oblige by suggesting uninspiring and predictable ideas.
If one person dominates the brainstorming session, his or her ideas inevitably become the focus and other participants’ ideas are pushed to the side. Unfortunately, this means that only one person is really doing any brainstorming – and that makes nonsense of bringing a brainstorming group together. Worse, dominating people are usually more interested in power than in discovering the best ideas.
When someone suggests an obviously good idea in a brainstorming event, other people tend to focus on similar ideas. The result is that other avenues of possibility are ignored.
Too much noise
In a good brainstorming event, a lot of people are sharing ideas loudly. That means everyone has to listen to other ideas before sharing their own. The result is more time and energy is spent on listening and interpreting than ideas than on generating ideas. Worse, quiet or shy people tend to keep to themselves when brainstorming gets noisy – so you lose their ideas.
My approach to brainstorming
One way to avoid these problems is to have participants spend 10 to 15 minutes generating ideas on their own. Then put them in pairs, have them compare ideas and add any more that come to mind. Then combine the pairs into bigger groups in order, again, to share ideas and add more. Continue in this way until you have one group that comprises the entire brainstorming team. At this time, put all existing ideas on the whiteboard. Combine similar ideas and avoid repeating ideas. Then finish off with a 15-20 minute traditional brainstorming shouting match to catch any ideas inspired by the collection.
Throughout this process, ensure that there is no criticism and no squelching. As facilitator, be sure to compliment every idea equally.
Another approach to brainstorming is to avoid verbalizing ideas and focus on creating them, through images, construction toys (such as wooden building bricks or Lego) or other non-verbal means. For instance, rather than asking a group of people to shout out new product ideas, you give them a huge box of Legos and ask them to build their ideas in collaboration.
I have had some success with this approach. You can read more about it here.
Other valuable approaches you can try
There are a variety of other approaches to brainstorming, such as the Post-It method. Here, participants write ideas on Post-it notes and stick them to a wall. Then the facilitator leads a discussion in which similar ideas are combined. This is typically followed by a second round of idea submission, where participants are inspired by ideas from the first round. This avoids some of the flaws with traditional brainstorming. However, it also sometimes lacks the energy and collaboration of traditional brainstorming, because people are generally working alone.
Other facilitators have created variations on these approaches. Inevitably, such approaches follow CPS methodology.
There are a handful of issues to avoid in a brainstorming session.
No matter how cool you are as a boss, you almost certainly intimidate your subordinates on some level. As a result, if you sit in on a brainstorming session, your subordinates are likely to restrain themselves for fear of sounding foolish. If you absolutely must participate, be sure to emphasize that the company is at this time specifically looking for outrageous ideas – the wackier the better and then do not even hint at criticizing anything!
Ensure that cell phones and other mobile devices are shut off and that office assistants understand that the brainstorming meeting is not to be disturbed for anything less than nuclear war. Actually, situating the event outside the office and confiscating communications devices beforehand can be an excellent approach.
We’ve covered this already, but I cannot stress enough that squelching can destroy an idea generation session. If you are facilitating a brainstorm, you must be willing to stamp down on squelching, even if it is coming from a superior (as it often is!).
For the best results in a brainstorming session, invest in a professional facilitator. Her fees will probably be less than the costs of staff time invested in the activity and, if she is good, will show an impressive return in terms of idea quality. However, before you come to an agreement, ask her how she overcomes the brainstorming problems we’ve covered here.
If you really must do your own brainstorm facilitation, at least practice on a trial group or two before running a real event. This will help you hone your technique and build confidence.
Brainstorming can be an effective and enjoyable means of generating creative ideas through collaboration. However, it is important to keep in mind the inherent weaknesses of traditional brainstorming techniques and find an approach that overcomes these problems.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the author
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.