Brainstorming is overrated and needs reengineering

We tell people to think outside the box, yet we don’t function like that in our everyday life.

Brainstorming is an overused technique that generates confined and limited solutions, but we can’t get enough of it. Organizations hold on to old business best practices that have since ceased to be effective without thinking of ways to recreate them.

To start a business, grow or innovate, companies need to generate creative ideas. The idea that brainstorming can lead to the generation of these ideas was coined in 1939 and popularised in the 1940s and 1950s by Alex Osborn, a marketing executive and creative theorist.

Since 1953, brainstorming as a word has spread around the globe with varied definitions

Brainstorming is such a common practice that research cites its consistent use in organizations as a rationale for the continued study of idea generation (Jablin, Sorensen, & Seibold, 1978; Lehrer, 2012; Paulus, Larey, & Ortega, 1995).

According to Alex, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” That sums up his rationale around brainstorming.

Brainstorming has four major components.

  • Focus on quantity, not quality (Generate as many ideas as possible no matter how wild and out of the world they may seem)
  • Prioritise original and uncommon ideas
  • Defer Judgement and avoid criticism
  • Combine and fine-tune generated ideas

Alex claimed that brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50% versus individuals working on their own. More than six decades after, research has shown that brainstorming hinders the creative performance of individuals in a group.

Why do organizations engage in brainstorming activities as a group?

  • The assumption is that brainstorming is the best way to generate creative ideas as a group and the idea that we are stronger as a group than we are if we are alone.
  • Brainstorming is synonymous with the creative idea-generating process.
  • A method for organizations to use employees‟ creativity as a way of improving productivity

Since 1958, Research conducted by various institutions including Yale University, Creativity Research Unit of the Creative Problem Solving group has shown that brainstorming sessions fail to generate a stream of solid ideas.

Think outside the box, don’t limit yourself, go as wild as you can, every idea is welcome. Common chants by managers encourage people to think creatively and come up with creative ideas. But it does not work. Most people cannot function at their peak without some form of structure and tangibility.

Without direction, most people are uncertain if their line of thinking is in alignment with the overall ambiguous goal or do they chart a new course altogether. The ambiguity of the task will make them shut down.

Is Brainstorming overrated or have we been brainstorming all wrong?

Organizations need to redesign how they organise and conduct brainstorming sessions to get the desired results.

Here are three suggestions to help you remodel your brainstorming sessions.

Re-engineer the Process:

Imagine a room of 20 people with a very intimidating leader. His presence in the brainstorming session would limit the free flow of ideas or make people reluctant to share what they might presume to be a silly idea. Or a brainstorming process moderator who just showed up to a brainstorming session with no form of preparation or understanding of the business goals.

We can adjust the process to increase the chance of success. Define what ideas are acceptable, and structure your questions in that fashion.

Test the questions on yourself. Which ones make you think of the most ideas? Present those questions.

Some clearly defined objectives and visualising what the results should look like give people the room to determine how to achieve more.

Make sure everyone is involved:

Put all the opinionated people (Those who like to control the direction of a meeting) in one group. If you have a brainstorming session with a group of 16 people, and 4 of those people like to dominate conversations, but them in one group, and have three other groups.

Provide some incentive for active participation. The goal is to get 100% of the participants to work at 100% of their capacity 100% of the session.

Have multiple brainstorming sessions. Do not rely on just one brainstorming session.

A brainstorming session must end on a good note, with all participants knowing that the result of their efforts will lead to action. Prioritise the ideas at the session, don’t leave it for another day. If you don’t get to the action immediately, you might end up not doing anything about it.

Once you have sorted the ideas, have another brainstorming session to harness the ideas.

Brainstorming can be a powerful tool if done well and can be a disaster and a waste of precious time when left to abstraction with no structure.

Business Strategist, Building Products for companies using Web and Mobile technologies. Fractional CMO.