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Brainstorming: Dead or Misunderstood?

Google “is brainstorming dead” and you’ll get about 1.9 million hits. I’m not sure which fact is more interesting; the number of results or the clear interest in trying to find the answer? And everyone and their cousin has weighed in on the discussion, from the now dubious Jonah Lehrer to Fast Company, Forbes, the New York Times, and every creativity blog known the mankind. Apparently I’m a little late to the game.

Whatever. Here’s my two cents.

Brainstorming is not dead. Brainstorming gets a critically and terminally bad rap because – wait for it – people don’t know how to do it! It’s like blaming a recipe for turning out badly when you arbitrarily decide to use only half of the ingredients. As created by Sid Parnes and Bob Osborne (AKA the ‘O’ in BBDO), the concept behind brainstorming was to allow disparate thinkers to bring forth multiple ideas without having them summarily killed at every turn. And it was designed as the middle piece of a several part creative problem solving process, which required rules of engagement, and actual process.

It is not the ‘brainstorm’ you’ve been having in your boardrooms for years now where the stakeholder acts as the ‘facilitator’ (and I use this term loosely) who edits, judges, dismisses, insults and ultimately kills all ideas put forward that do not mesh with his or her agenda. It is also not the ‘brainstorm’ where each idea is discussed to death as it emerges or where the loudest voice in the room wins. And it is definitely not the ‘brainstorm’ where reams and reams of flip chart paper are sacrificed to the eco-Gods for no discernible reason.

I’ve read all of the critiques. I’ve heard how “brainstorming does not allow for conflict and conflict is the key to new ideas”. No – new thinking is the key to new ideas. And in a well facilitated creative problem solving session, convergence involves lots of discussion and healthy back and forth because that’s when it’s appropriate to do so – not during divergence when ideas are being generated free of judgment. I’ve also heard how “brainstorming favors extroverts” and how poor brilliant introverts are left quivering in their seats in the wake of all of the shouters and idea machine guns. Not buying. Again, a well facilitated brainstorm ensures that both introverts and extroverts are considered and that techniques for all parts of the process suit them equally. And that’s just a few of naysayers.

Yet studies have proven that “when teams are facilitated during idea generation they can produce up to 400% more ideas in comparison to teams that work without a facilitator. Some facilitated teams increased their productivity by 600%.”(Isaksen & Gaulin) With results like that, is it more likely that the process is broken or the application of the process? So what’s the takeaway here?

Before you dismiss brainstorming entirely, make sure you’re doing it properly. If you don’t know how to do it, hire someone who does and learn from them. Use it in the right context – as the idea generation stage of the creative problem solving process. Facilitate it properly using a variety of techniques and approaches to ensure everyone’s styles are accommodated for the best and most balanced outcomes. Stimulate discussion and challenge appropriately as you’re converging and building your big and juicy ideas. Remember that the rules and techniques of brainstorming can and should apply even when its just three guys sitting in an office kicking around a few ideas.

And last but not least, trust that ideas born out of multiple minds will be more interesting by definition than those emerging from singular perspective.

Long live brainstorming – the REAL kind.

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  1. Pingback: Where brainstorming fits in the creative problem solving process

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