Imaginary scenario: you have been invited to a meeting to […]

Imaginary scenario: you have been invited to a meeting to explore new approaches to a wicked problem. Loudmouth Number 1 describes his solution. Loudmouth Number 2 vehemently disagrees. A heated argument ensues. Some people take sides. Others remain silent. There are bruised egos. You are not the only one who feels frustrated. All that time just one single idea has been considered.

Have you ever experienced such a meeting? Have you ever wondered why brainstorming came to be?

Brainstorming Today: Why It Needs an Update

These days the noun “brainstorming” and the verb “to brainstorm” are used (and misused) extensively and in many different ways. Our working definition in this article is that brainstorming is a “process to enable purposeful, collaborative idea generation” – a definition loyal to its originator’s intention.

A lot of things have changed since the early days of brainstorming three generations ago – ways of interacting at work, leadership styles, how teams collaborate, and technology, to name but a few. Clinging to the very simple model of those times is neither useful nor practical, but dismissing it outright would be to sideline a little gem…which is why it is time for a revival.

In what follows I will seek to update brainstorming by building on classic and new know-how, using new tools and taking into account new ways of working.

Brainstorming: The Original Version

Alex Osborn was an advertising man. His firm, BBDO (the O is for Osborn) is still one of the world’s leading publicity companies. Osborn practised creativity purposefully and wrote about it passionately. He is the acknowledged father of brainstorming, which he presented in various publications (How to Think Up, 1942; Your Creative Power, 1948; Applied Imagination, 1954).

Osborn intended brainstorming to be used in the context of a Creative Problem-Solving method (CPS) on which he worked for many years in partnership with Professor Sidney Parnes of Buffalo State College, who continued Osborn’s work. CPS is in fact a precursor to many other methods of resolving challenges, including most recently, Design Thinking. It is mostly practised in teams and has two key features: resolving problems in sequential stages and practicing divergent and convergent thinking at each stage.

The method has three basic stages:

  1. Exploring and defining a problem.
  2. Finding solutions to the problem.
  3. Selecting and implementing the best solution.

The model underscores the importance of what happens before (the groundwork) and what happens after (the follow-up) finding solutions, which is the stage at which brainstorming is most frequently deployed.

Over the years, refinements and variations of the model have highlighted the addition of more stages (I have seen practitioners use up to 8 stages). However many, the sequential stage approach to solving problems is a feature shared by most methodologies of complex problem-solving, some of which predate CPS (eg G. Wallas, The Art of Thought, 1926).

What distinguishes CPS came from the realization that creative and critical thinking are both crucial for problem-solving but they are not effective if practised at the same time. CPS calls for each stage to be conducted first with Divergent (Creative) Thinking first, followed by Convergent (Critical) Thinking.

Divergent (Creative) Thinking has four guidelines:

  • Suspend judgment. Banishing critique to enable uninhibited production of ideas.
  • Quantity. Generating lots of ideas to make for a wider range of choices.
  • Beyond Reason. Stretching the imagination to find more unusual ideas.
  • Build on Ideas. Using existing ideas as a springboard for other ideas.

Convergent (Critical) Thinking has three guidelines:

  • Organize. Clustering ideas in categories.
  • Evaluate. Assessing ideas thus re-incorporating critical debate and judgment.
  • Select. Deciding which ideas to take to the next level.

As noted, brainstorming can be practised at any stage of CPS, but it is most commonly deployed in solution-finding. In Osborn’s days, people gathered around a board and called out ideas to address a clearly defined challenge with Divergent Thinking Guidelines, while a facilitator noted them on the board. Brainstorms were intended to be fast, high-energy sessions with plenty of ideas. (NB. The words “problem” and “challenge” are used synonymously in this article).

They then discussed the ideas, organized them, appraised them and chose the best using Convergent Thinking Guidelines.

Brainstorming: The Bigger Context

Like any purposeful act, brainstorming does not happen in a vacuum. It is supported (or not) by context, primarily by organizational structures and cultures.

Structures that promote creativity include a good general understanding of the organization’s strategy, accountability and organization for innovation, promoting autonomous teamwork and systems to encourage creativity and change.

The Cultural drivers of creativity include the degrees of empowerment of individuals and teams, the determination and energy afforded to change projects, levels of trust, freedom of debate, appetite for risk, tolerance of mistakes and more.

Brainstorming Challenged

Brainstorming triggered a debate in the years that followed Osborn’s publications. Early critiques focused on studies showing that, when brainstorming, people produced fewer and less original ideas than individuals working separately and alone. This was attributed to interruptions in individuals’ thinking as other group members called out their ideas, delays in recording the ideas and the reticence of some people to voice really provocative ideas in a group – especially when mighty bosses were also in the room. Other studies purported to show that brainstorming groups did not outperform groups who were asked to solve the same problem without any guidelines.

Practitioners of brainstorming retorted that the studies were flawed because of bad facilitation or simply because the groups did not really follow Divergent Thinking guidelines.

It is hard to find a brainstorm that produced a powerful, valuable and highly original idea. But then powerful, valuable and highly original ideas are very rare and hard to find anyway, especially in a few hours (which is as long as most brainstorms last).

To a large extent the debate is about the value of teamwork vs. solitary work in the idea generation stage of creative projects. Some critics argue that truly novel ideas can only come from individuals working alone, and that the value of teamwork is evident only in refining and actioning ideas (the critical thinking phase). Others counter that innovation is always an outcome of collaboration, and that it is quite absurd not to utilize the undeniable capacity of people to co-create. A better approach would be to recognize and utilize the merits of both solo and team ideation.

Brainstorming: Many Heads are Better Than One – or Are They?

There is good evidence that most breakthrough ideas do in fact come from individuals when they are working alone. This is especially true for problems that are not easily broken up in parts – such as developing the theory of relativity or writing Hamlet. It is less true for the types of problems that are best confronted by solving a number of different sub-problems requiring different types of expertise – such as launching a mission to Mars or designing a system to facilitate transport in a traffic-congested city. And valuable ideas are not only the rare – breakthrough ones. Lots of incremental ideas can also produce a wealth of value.

Both advocates and critics of brainstorming tend to ignore that individuals, as well as teams, are different from one another. Some people’s idea-generating faculties are energized by stimuli from team members with whom they are working for the same goal. Others are hampered by the mere presence of others. Some are less prone to coming up with imaginative solutions fast, but they revel in analysing, improving and implementing solutions. Why not make best use of such diversity?

There is no question that five experts in a given domain will have more knowledge, insights and ideas than a single expert. There is no question that each expert can build on the ideas of her colleague. And, if the experts have been coached in creative principles, the ideas combine, becoming richer and more potent.

Teamwork can be sub-optimal with low energy, low trust or groupthink, or it can be turbo-charged, creative and change-directed. There is no question that a good brainstorm needs a good team, one that also encourages each of its members to ideate alone as well.

Brainstorming: The Beauty

Osborn and Parnes had intended the guidelines of Divergent (Creative) Thinking to work as the backbone of the practice of creativity. These guidelines are in fact a robust basis for productive teamwork.

The biggest gem of them all is suspending judgment. All ideas from all people are acceptable. Teams that allocate time for expression that is absolutely free from any criticism are establishing a mode of behavior for listening and increasing trust – a keystone for team progress. Trust makes it easier for conflicts to be resolved at the evaluation stage and eliminates the need for displays of rank.

Suspending judgment does not come naturally to adults; it is a learned behaviour (which even Loudmouths Number 1 and 2 can learn). As one gets more proficient, accepting offers from others becomes second nature. This openness extends the boundaries of learning – not only for teams, but for personal growth too. For just a week try to say “yes, and…” whenever you feel like saying “yes, but…” and you’ll know what I mean.

The second guideline, going for quantity, mobilizes the energy of the group. Gregarious, extroverted idea generators in a non-judgmental setting may even stimulate the more timid to chip in.

The deliberate effort to go beyond reason is not a trivial matter. Creativity is not about being silly, but taking a return trip to our childhood opens up a certain naiveté that can produce fresh perspectives. There is power in empowering people’s imaginations. People draw on emotions, fantasies, metaphors, poetic license, images that arise in their minds. Communicating outside the domain of reason and facts can yield much deeper and richer human connections.

And what better than build on the ideas of others to stimulate a spirit of working together? And to confront change together? And to own our ideas collectively?

I do not know of a better approach to team building than to begin with a good old-fashioned brainstorm.

Brainstorming: Emergence of Ideas and Convergence

In its divergent phase, brainstorming will produce a list of incomplete, infant ideas – seeds that need nourishment before they bear fruit. It takes skill to move from openness to closure and a quick vote on ideas is not the right way to converge. This is why we need an in-between phase.

Guy Aznar suggests that there should be an Emergence phase between Divergence and Convergence in which promising ideas are roughly explored before they are fully developed and before any major choices are made (Guy Aznar and Stéphane Ely, La posture sensible dans le processus de création des idées, 2010). During this time there is still openness. Judgment is used sparingly and ideas can be modified, making them more robust.

Convergence too is best done methodically and slowly rather than rapidly. During Convergence, critical thinking comes to play with discussion of the merits and concerns of each idea. This is the time for people to express their opinions passionately before the best solution is selected. The result will be infinitely richer than those of a battle of egos.

Brainstorming and Techniques for Idea Generation

A large number of techniques are at a team’s disposal to reinforce and stimulate idea generation. One set of techniques is based on making deliberate or random associations or combinations using stimuli such as words, objects, real or imaginary people, situations, sensory perceptions – pictures, sounds, sounds, smells, touch, taste etc. Another type of technique seeks to identify impossible, provocative or even catastrophic ideas which are later converted into possible solutions. A third type makes use of meditation, introspection, image-streaming or dreaming.

Ideation techniques have been devised for a single person or for pairs, trios, small teams and large groups. They are especially useful to stretch people’s minds when it appears that all ideas have been exhausted and people are finding it hard to generate new ones. They can help produce very rich outcomes and, with practice, help people and teams improve their idea generation skills.

Brainstorming and Tech

As mentioned, at first brainstorming was powered by boards or flipcharts, markers and sticky tape. People called out ideas, a facilitator wrote them on the board for everyone to see and kept time. “Brainwriting,” a variation, asked people themselves to silently write their ideas on sheets of paper that were circulated to other participants who added their own ideas.

In the late 1980s, when Post It Notes made it to facilitators’ toolkits, people could be given a little quiet time to individually write down their ideas. At suitable intervals each person read out their ideas as others listened. This enabled people to work in silence before they shared with their team and, later on in the process, they could move the sticky notes around to organize the ideas.

Today collaborative platforms such as VIIMA, MIRO, MURAL and many others, have made it easier for brainstorming to function with ideas generated individually, synchronously and asynchronously, with or without physical meetings.

Brainstorming: The Classic and the Update

It is still possible to use brainstorming the old way, in one session to resolve a problem that is reasonably simple such as a finding new product name or organizing an office party or to get small ideas for continuous improvement. It is also good to kickstart a team of people who have never before engaged in idea generation together. Brainstorming the old way can bring out those little ideas that you can use as building blocks for more ideas – not big ones – and wow solutions on a complex challenge.

Brainstorming today should not be a single face-to-face meeting to produce a fast burst of ideas, but a process for new idea generation that engages both individuals and their teams a series of sessions.

The Perfect Brainstorm

The Perfect Brainstorm needs a good team, operating in a supportive structure and culture. The team is composed of individuals who are seeking to resolve a common challenge. It is purposeful and time bound but not rushed. The brainstorm is best facilitated by a professional.

The Perfect Brainstorm is preceded by thorough problem definition, after good analysis of facts, expectations and a shared vision of success. It is followed by developing solutions, prototyping, testing and launching the best solution.

The Perfect Brainstorm uses synchronous and asynchronous modes, solitary thinking and team meetings. Synchronous sessions can be live or online – having both is best.

The Perfect Brainstorm uses an online platform to manage ideas (unless participants work at the same location, in which case there may be a venue dedicated a specific brainstorm, for say a week or two).

The Perfect Brainstorm clearly designates time for creative and time for critical thinking, as per the Osborn-Parnes formula and makes use of Aznar’s emergence – the in-between phase. It could flow as follows:

  • Ideas to confront the (well-defined) challenge are shared in a simple, synchronous session a little like an old-style brainstorm. This is will bring spontaneous or pre-existing ideas to the forefront and allow everyone to express their preliminary thoughts in an open, collaborative set-up.
  • People generate many more ideas individually, at their own time, by a set deadline. Each person is asked to generate at least X number of solutions, including at least two fantastic, even impossible ideas.
  • The team meets, and individuals share their ideas. They then generate more ideas. At this point specific idea generation techniques can be used – sessions in pairs, trios and sub-groups are very useful.
  • Once again people generate more ideas individually, at their own time, by a set deadline. Ask everyone to include fantastic, even impossible ideas.
  • Take a deliberate pause of sorts.
  • Individuals make a preliminary selection of good ideas – all ideas that at least one team member likes – without influencing each other. Each person must choose at least one fantastic, even impossible idea.
  • In pairs/trios, explore the good ideas and rephrase them with more depth. Distinguish the incremental/easily implementable ideas from those that are more radical/harder to implement. This is the longlist. Every team member should have her favourite idea on this list.
  • As a team, engage in discussion. From the longlist make a shorter list. Make sure you include both incremental/easily implementable ideas and ideas that are radical/harder to implement. This is the shortlist.
  • As a team evaluate the shortlisted ideas in depth. Begin with positive critique and consider other potential extensions or variants of the idea. Then note the concerns and how to overcome them.
  • Choose which solution to prototype/test. The final choice can be made by the team or the team leader or the project owner or an outside client.

Each of the above sessions should be thoroughly debriefed. Meetings can be live or online – best to use both if possible. If necessary repeat some of the steps, iterate or modify – the Perfect Brainstorm is not cast in stone

The Perfect Brainstorm is not one simple high-energy session. It is a flow of solitary and collaborative sessions, each with a different texture and style.

Beyond the Perfect Brainstorm

Artificial Intelligence has already proved its worth in solving problems with single or finite solutions, as the well-publicized cases of machines beating humans in chess, Jeopardy and Go have shown. There is however much debate on which areas and in which ways computers can outperform humans in carrying out creative tasks for which there may be an infinite array of possible solutions. What is clear though is that computers can learn to generate surprising new ideas, even if there might be limits beyond which artificial intelligence will never match human creativity.

I have no doubt that computing and artificial intelligence will be gainfully deployed for idea generation, though it would be premature to assume that we can delegate all creative problem-solving to machines. The early days will surely see people use artificial intelligence as a booster to human idea generation. Not so long in the future the Perfect Brainstorm is bound to morph again into something new.

About the Author

Keynote speaker, consultant and trainer in leadership, creativity and innovation. His model for innovation was published in his book The Art of Innovation and followed by Leading Innovation in Practice, a roadmap for innovation in organizations. Dimis has extensive international experience at Director or Executive level in international private companies and public organizations. As a speaker, he provides audiences with out-of-the-ordinary experiences through his original material and use of magic.





I am grateful to Guy Aznar, Jeffrey Baumgartner, Kevin Byron and Maria Solomou for comments on the first draft of this article. -DM

Featured image via Unsplash.