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Stop Saying Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

Brainstorming sucks. It just doesn’t work. It’s a useless exercise that quickly devolves into soul crushing groupthink. At least that’s what so many people and companies think. As a result of my years of experience as a former ad agency Creative Director and now trainer, I’ve just got to set the record straight.

Brainstorming works

Brainstorming only works if you’re doing it right. And most of you aren’t.

Saying that brainstorming doesn’t work is like waving around a slice of baloney and complaining about what a crappy sandwich it is. Of course it’s a crappy sandwich – because it ISN’T a sandwich. Where’s the bread? The mustard? Lettuce? Tomatoes?

Those who complain that brainstorming is crappy are waving pure baloney. Brainstorming in and of itself is not a complete process. It’s merely a step in a larger one. And when taken out of context, order or purpose from that process, it becomes not just useless, but actively counterproductive.

Where does brainstorming come from?

Brainstorming is the middle step of a process known as Creative Problem Solving. Developed more than 50 years ago by Alex Osborn (the ‘O’ in ad agency giant BBDO), and academic Sid Parnes, it was designed to help groups effectively solve problems using applied creativity.

Over time, the inherent ‘rushing to solution’ mindset that plagues most organizations seems to have caused the process to become bastardized and shortcut. Perhaps due to the ‘busy’ nature of brainstorming, it was extracted out as the only productive part and before long, it became no more than a soul-crushing gathering where the loudest or most senior voice won and everyone else agreed or were criticized or bullied. For most, this is the only brainstorming they’ve ever experienced. And yes, that’s some serious baloney.

Even the definition of brainstorming has been misconstrued. Think of the icon that best represents brainstorming to you. Is it a light bulb? Lightning bolt going through a brain? A chaos of thoughts? None of these is accurate. The word, as Osborn conceived it, meant to break down barriers in the brain to solve a problem – to ‘storm the gates’ as it were.

It might surprise you to know that almost all of the creativity or innovation processes used today were fundamentally born from Creative Problem Solving. Design Thinking? Yup – that’s basically Creative Problem Solving with a rapid prototyping step. IDEOs Human Centered Design? Creative Problem Solving with rapid prototyping and quick user feedback. SmartStorming? You guessed it, Creative Problem Solving with a twist. And no, they didn’t steal the model. Creative Problem Solving has always been open source that anyone is free to use, amend, update or play with. We at Combustion have our own version known as C-Lab™.

What is ‘real’ brainstorming?

Brainstorming lives within the Creative Problem Solving process.  The basic steps are:

  1. Identifying and Stating the Problem
  2. Moving from Problem to Opportunity
  3. Brainstorming / Idea Generation
  4. Building Solutions
  5. Testing and Strengthening Solutions

So first, off, put brainstorming back where it belongs and follow the freakin’ steps. In order! Each one is critical to success. In fact, the ones you’re NOT doing are probably the ones you need to do most. Because if you’re running to brainstorm on a problem that you haven’t yet properly investigated, there’s a good chance you’ll try and solve the wrong problem. As such, the chances of success are pretty slim.

Next, every creative process has two basic modes of thinking. Divergent and convergent.

You Got to Diverge before you Converge!

Divergent thinking is wide-open, blue sky, experimental, crazy, dangerous, playful and never, ever to be judged. It’s the happy land where “what if…” meets “yes and…”.

Convergent thinking is the opposite. It’s when analysis and judgment occur, when a variety of ideas come together to form bigger, richer solutions and when criteria comes into play. It is the literal ‘coming together’ to get to the right point or solution.

The Creative Problem Solving steps require participants to move back and forth from divergent to convergent thinking multiple times – although never EVER at the same time. An example of this would be coming up with an idea and then immediately questioning whether it’s going to work or not. This is the biggest brainstorming no-no.

Why? Because brainstorming is ALL divergence. 100% pure unfiltered divergence. The most delicious form of divergence.  Thus judgment has no place in it.

Only when all ideas have been exhaustively produced and captured, would a true proponent of Creative Problem Solving even begin to start to look at them critically. At that point, you would no longer be brainstorming. You’d be in Building Solutions (which by the way would require you to first converge to bring disparate ideas together to form new and different solutions, THEN diverge to blow those solutions out even further.)

Next, don’t assume that brainstorming is only good for shout-y extroverts. That’s only true if you don’t know how to facilitate or manage the process.

Good brainstorming offers countless techniques to ensure that everyone can contribute equally. There are techniques for silent contribution, loud and open sharing so people can build on the ideas they hear, more low key collaborative techniques that allow for more 1-1 idea generation. How about techniques for visual thinkers versus auditory thinkers, for abstract thinkers versus concrete thinkers? You name it, there’s a technique for it. And every single one is designed to ensure that the loudest voice in the room can’t win.

There are hundreds of tips and insights that can get you back on the track to more productive idea generation sessions. The point here is to encourage you not to throw out the creative baby with the badly drawn bath water.

Brainstorming isn’t baloney. It’s just misunderstood. When we train people on how to properly follow a creative problem solving process they literally lose their minds. Because we give them the tools and methodology to unleash their creative potential in an environment free from all that bad brainstorming juju, and they’re able to fall in love with creative collaboration again. And that’s pretty tasty.

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  1. Pingback: Are You a Killer Creative Leader? | Combustion

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