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Most of us know brainstorming is the technique of stimulating creative thinking by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in group discussion. That’s what advertising executive Alex Osborn of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn had in mind when he coined the term. Frustrated by what he felt was a lack of creativity and imagination among his ad execs, he gathered them together and directed them to spontaneously suggest as many new advertising ideas as possible. He believed what distinguished his brainstorming from other group activities was the absence of negative feedback. Osborn insisted the process would fail if people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed. He felt that if no one criticized their ideas, people would lose their social inhibitions and free-associate spontaneously. In the era of the Madison Avenue three-martini lunch, brainstorming solved Osborn’s problem with his uninspired staff. He wrote a book about it and companies everywhere jumped on the brainstorming bandwagon.

What’s wrong with brainstorming?

Listen to these experts telling us how traditional group brainstorming is a bad way to go about searching for solutions to problems:

  • Psychology professor Paul Paulus explains how “brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build. It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well.” 
  • Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management professor Ben Jones argues that the problems businesses need to solve aren’t the kind that allow us to follow Osborn’s method, which was designed as a way to come up with advertising slogans and jingles, hardly the problems your company faces. (Click here to see a television ad created by BBDO’s brainstorming team.)
  • Annie Sneed of Fast Company says brainstorming is dumb, because group dynamics have too many downsides. Among them are how strong people dominate, less assertive ones hold back, toadies practice group suckup (the verbal version of groupthink), and more.
  • Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, says the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important – the lack of negative feedback. 
  • Art Markman of HBR says scientific research shows that groups using traditional brainstorming techniques come up with fewer ideas – and fewer good ideas – than having people brainstorm individually. The reason is simple. When people work together, their ideas tend to converge. When they work alone, their thinking is divergent.
  • KornFerry says the sadly misinformed emphasis on brainstorming ”dovetails neatly with contemporary culture’s unquestioning faith in all things social and collaborative.”

Dozens of companies sell brainstorming products and services.

Crazy Eights, Starbursting, and Lightning Decision Jam (which sounds to me like a roller derby tactic) are only a few of the many I found. Each is a riff on traditional group brainstorming that uses idea dumps without feedback. Most claim “out of the box” status, but the general themes are quantity over quality and the encouragement of outlandish ideas. IDEO, the highly-regarded Palo Alto design company, is a brainstorming advocate. While their approach is to encourage wild ideas, go for quantity, and emphasize the visual, partner Brendan Boyle offers this caution: “Brainstorming is a lot like playing a game. If no one plays by the rules, it’s a disaster.”

I am not suggesting abandoning brainstorming sessions.

Instead, I am advocating doing them in better ways than they are done now. The calm before the storm is an idiom for a very quiet period followed by a period of intense activity. When storms are approaching, it is always wise to prepare in advance. Think about the relationship between fire prevention and fire fighting – the more fires you prevent, the fewer fires you have to fight. A better way is to use a hybrid approach that separates idea generation from idea evaluation by generating ideas individually (the calm) and then challenging them collectively (the storm).

Start with individual pre-work.

Have participants write down their ideas individually and privately beforehand. In his Harvard Business Review article “Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong,” cognitive scientist and author Art Markman argues that Osborn’s rules lead to fewer good ideas than when individuals develop ideas on their own because traditional brainstorming leads to groupthink. As a result, the range of new and different ideas becomes self-limiting. Conversely, if the group first generates ideas alone, a broader and richer range of concepts emerges. One interesting version is McKinsey & Company’s brainwriting, where individual team members write down their ideas and share them on paper before any discussion begins. Another good one is Round Robin Brainstorming, where everyone must put forth an idea in turn and wait until everyone has an idea in the pile.

“Hoist with his own petard” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that indicates an ironic reversal.

While researching this article, I was surprised to learn that the man who told us creativity needed to happen in groups said his imagination worked better when he stayed away from people. In his book, Your Creative Power, Osborn revealed his creative process was to work alone, away from the distractions of the workplace, which he said were places of judicial functioning, not creativity. When confronting a problem, he preferred the solitude of simple activities like a good long shower, shaving, and doing the dishes. When he had a particularly difficult problem to solve, he would drive a hundred miles to isolate himself in a hotel room where he was able to get away from routine and not be interrupted by anyone.

The drawbacks of groups.

Presenting ideas only after working alone in advance means there is nowhere for brainstormers to hide (click here to listen to what Martha and the Vandellas say about Nowhere to Hide). As they sit listening to others, brainstorming participants get a sense of how ideas are being received and are likely to get on the bandwagon, the great stifler of creativity. Loran Nordgren, of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, says “When you get people into groups, there is a lot of social loafing, but when you ask them to do this individually, you’re maximizing the brain power of each person.”

The need for healthy debate and open criticism.

Multiple studies on Osborn’s theories have debunked the notion that eliminating healthy debate is somehow productive. Gerard Puccio, chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, says some friction is better than none when teams want to generate high-quality ideas. Chuck Swoboda, Innovator-in-Residence at Marquette University wrote a Forbes article called Why The Old Brainstorming Rules Are Out – And The Creative Power Of Healthy Debate Is In. In it, he says “Finding the best ideas requires healthy debate, candor and criticism.“ Nemeth adds “Because we do not want to be rude, cut each other off, or all talk at once when presenting and discussing things out loud, we take turns, and there are a host of problems with that.” As Professor Nemeth’s findings show, “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but rather stimulate them relative to every other condition.” According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.

Author of In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business, Nemeth found that encouraging people to challenge each other—what she labels as the “debate condition”—actually leads to more and better ideas. Nordgren’s research discovered groups that debated the merit of ideas during the ideation session came up with 20% more ideas than groups that stuck to Osborn’s principle of no negative feedback. Further, when participants in the research were asked after the session whether they had any additional ideas, those who had been in the debating groups had an average of seven more ideas. Those from the non-debating groups had only three.

In a New Yorker article “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” Nemeth puts it this way: “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the key element of brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Healthy debate helps us look at problems from different perspectives, and that is how we find the best ideas. She adds: “There’s this Pollyanna-ish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is to stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. Well, that’s just wrong – healthy debate helps us look at problems and situations from a different perspective. And that is how we find the best ideas.” Regardless of the makeup or mission of the team, the only way to work your way to the best ideas is to call each other out, engage spirited debate and let the best ideas win. Such openness and honesty will not only help individuals and the team be more productive, but it will increase the rate of learning for the entire group.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Every process can be improved upon. All you have to do is find out who does common things in uncommon ways and use what you learn to make your brainstorming sessions work for you and not against you.

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