Whenever a business or a work team needs some ideas, someone in the group invariably suggests: “Okay, let’s brainstorm for ideas then.”
Brainstorming is arguably the most widely used creativity technique ever since Alex Osborn introduced the tool in his classic 1953 book Applied Imagination. Need some evidence? Brainstorming has played a central role in every book on creativity techniques. Some people even use the word brainstorming synonymously with creativity.
A search on Google delivers about 11.8 million results for the word “brainstorming” as compared to only 1.5 million hits for the term “creativity technique” – although, from a set theory point of view, the subset brainstorming is only a part of the whole “creativity technique” set. Take the simple Google popularity test as a warning sign: It suggests that brainstorming is often used in a context different from its original scope of being an idea generation tool.
Here we arrive at some of the problems with brainstorming. With reference to the title of the classic western movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you need to understand the good, bad and ugly side of brainstorming to produce creative results for your company when using this tool.
The ugly side of Brainstorming
So let’s get started in gaining a greater understanding by looking at the ugly sides of brainstorming first: My experience as a creativity coach has taught me that in most companies, brainstorming is done incorrectly, thus delivering only comparatively few, rather unoriginal ideas. Most companies start on the correct path by assigning a facilitator to run the session and a recorder to jot down the ideas of the group in an appropriate size (eight plus minus two is a good rule of thumb here). However, they fail when it comes to following through on the all-important four Ground Rules of Brainstorming:
- First, defer judgment until the end of the session – or in other words: no killing of ideas during the brainstorming. Judgment is like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. So, take the foot off the brake to accelerate the idea output in a brainstorming session.
- Second, go for quantity – as quantity breeds quality. Here, remember that the chances that you find one great idea out of an idea generation session will be higher if you get four hundred as compared to only a hundred ideas. As Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling noted: “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”
- Third, the wilder the better. Shoot for crazy, wild, absurd ideas — in line with Albert Einstein’s advice: “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
- Finally, combine ideas and improve on the ideas of others.
The bad side of Brainstorming
Moving on to the bad sides of brainstorming: Many research studies confirm that brainstorming is an inferior technique with regards to producing a high idea quantity. In a given time interval, a group of “brainwriters” that individually write down their ideas will generate roughly four-times more ideas then a same-size brainstorming group.
Researchers attribute this result to three effects that explain the deficiencies of brainstorming:
- First, some members of the group don’t participate and let others do all the work (the “free-rider phenomenon”);
- Secondly, some group participants avoid expressing wild or original ideas out of fear how other group members might privately judge them (the problem of “evaluation apprehension”);
- and third and most important, the “blocking effect” that stems from the fact that only one person can speak at a time and then blocks the thinking of other members who listen to the suggested idea instead of thinking for themselves.
The good side of Brainstorming
Finally, let’s talk about the good side: Brainstorming has become such a popular technique because it is a highly enjoyable, energetic activity that people love to do – and having fun and being playful and childlike (as opposed to being childish) are all very beneficial for unleashing creativity.
Brainstorming is a crucial ingredient in the creative culture of the industrial design powerhouse IDEO, and the innovation results delivered by this company speak for the benefits of this technique if used appropriately.
So how can we cure the bad and ugly sides of brainstorming while continuing to enjoy the benefits of its good side? Here are five recommendations on how you can develop a correct brainstorming culture in your company:
- Start the process by sending your employees to a quality creativity training workshop to learn the basics of idea generation.
- Have an individual Brainwriting exercise before every brainstorming session.
- Review the ground rules before the start of a session.
- Set an idea quota for each session — say, at least a hundred ideas in one hour that keeps the group focused on moving forward instead of falling into the judgment trap.
- Finally, have an experienced facilitator run the session, who introduces other creativity techniques (such as ‘Metaphors’ or ‘What if” (wishful thinking) into the session once the group starts running dry on ideas.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2007. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 7 June 2007. It was one of the first articles that started the Thinkergy Blog and the bi-weekly column “Creativity Un-Ltd.” that ran in the business section of the Bangkok Post for more than a decade.