Bashing Trend and the Defense of Brainstorming

by Mitch Ditkoff

In the past few years I have noticed a curious trend in the media — one I can no longer ignore — and that is the appearance of seriously derisive articles about brainstorming by self-declared pundits and freelance writers.

Citing selected research on the subject and paying brief homage to Alex Osborne, the father of brainstorming, they make bold assertions about the ineffectiveness of the method, often claiming that “it does not work” and making grand declarations like “people are more creative away from the crowd” and “over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in a group.”

While the previous two quotes do have some degree of truth associated with them, likening a brainstorm session to a “crowd” is not only a poor choice of metaphors, it is patently untrue.

And while many irrational decisions have been made in groups since the beginning of time, to assume that irrational decisions will necessarily be made in a brainstorming session is only more proof that the writers of the recent spate of anti-brainstorming screeds have either never participated in a skillfully facilitated brainstorm session or are hopelessly late for their next journalistic deadline, refusing to take the time to go beyond their specious all-or-nothing conclusions drawn from someone else’s research — some of which is more than 50 years old.

To blatantly conclude that brainstorming sessions don’t work is as absurd as saying that marriages don’t work because 50% end in divorce or tourists shouldn’t visit New York City because sometimes the traffic is bad.

What I’m guessing that brainstorming naysayers really mean is that bad brainstorming sessions don’t work… or poorly facilitated brainstorming sessions don’t work… or brainstorming sessions with the wrong mix of unprepared participants (marriage, anyone?) don’t work.

Brainstorming critics like to cite a 1958 study, at Yale, that showed that students thinking on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups — and their solutions were deemed to be more effective and feasible.

Fine. Good. Terrific. I’m all for people thinking on their own in their dorm room… or Starbucks… or the zoo. That’s a good thing. But as a replacement for a well-run brainstorming session? Why the either/or syndrome? Why not both?

Just because you had breakfast this morning doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip dinner tonight, does it?

And besides, even a casual scan of the literature will reveal an extraordinary number of innovation-leaning people who joined forces with others to conceive something brilliant that none of them could have conjured on their own.

Think Jobs and Wozniak. Think Watson and Crick, Hewlett and Packard, John, Paul, George, and Ringo — and any number of less famous ad hoc groups of aspiring innovators, working in all kind of organizations, who came out of their corporate dorm rooms long enough to jam with other seekers of possibility to jump start bold new advances in just about every industry on planet Earth.

But wait! There’s more!

The anti-brainstorming forces are also fond of asserting that creativity is stifled in a brainstorming session.

Hello! Earth to journalists on deadline writing about brainstorming for a flight magazine. To claim that creativity will invariably be stifled in a brainstorming session is like saying that creativity will invariably be stifled in a marriage… or in a school… or in an organization. Possible? Yes. Whenever two or more people with egos get together, creativity has the potential to be stifled. But inevitable? No.

On the contrary, creativity is often sparked in a group — even groups that are cranky, competitive, and strong-willed. Indeed, “creative dissonance” is often the catalyst for breakthrough — NOT lone wolf, ivory tower idea generators sitting alone in their room attempting to conjure up the next big thing.

Brainstorm detractors — as least the ones I’ve read — are fond of citing “social loafing’, “social blocking”, “free riding”, and other group-centric sociological phenomenon as proof of why brainstorming sessions should cease to exist.

Yes, I agree that some people who work in organizations fit this slacker stereotype. But there is no room for this kind of energy-sucking behavior in a well-run brainstorming session — one that has been thoughtfully prepared, the right people invited, and with a skillful facilitator catalyzing the creative process.

Would brainstorm detractors suggest that we get rid of cities because some of them are polluted, or get rid of marriages because some couples quarrel, or eliminate music because some people turn up their stereos just a little too loud when their neighbors are trying to sleep?

With all due respect (well, with at least some respect), I humbly invite the small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction to pause for a moment and contemplate any one of the following questions — questions with the potential to spark the kind of creative thinking our small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction might have missed by not participating in a brainstorming session on this very topic.

1. How can brainstorm sessions be improved?

2. How can the facilitators of brainstorm sessions learn how to dependably spark creativity in others?

3. How can brainstorm sessions build on the good ideas generated by participants before the session begins?

4. How can team leaders or project managers ensure that the right mix of people attend their brainstorm sessions?

5. How can a group of brainstorm participants generate and abide by a set of guidelines that will radically increase their odds of generating breakthrough ideas?

6. How can brainstorming become part of a continuum of idea generation strategies in an organization, so its “idea eggs” are not all in the same basket?

image credit: thingsweforget.com

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Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.

7 comments

  1. Mitch

    Some people have been using shallow studies, called research studies, to slam Brainstorming, the creative thinking technique, created by Alex Osborn for 50 to 60 years.

    Since July 2011 several of the mostly recent “self-proclaimed” creativity experts, all freelance writers with no actual specialized training or in-depth study in creativity or creative thinking have been slamming BRAINSTORMING, when actually they are writing, poorly, about ‘brainstorming’ the hackneyed term that means “POORLY RUN MEETINGS”.

    in 2011 I initially created this website page on my website devoted to articles about Alex Osborn’s BRAINSTORMING and attacking the crap that has been written by Ashley Merryman, Jonah Lehrer and other self-proclaimed creativity experts.

    http://www.cre8ng.com/professional-materials/about-me/brainstorming-or-brainstorming

  2. Well said, Alan. Thanks for the lucid input and link!

  3. Hear! Hear! …..Here!

  4. Despite the critics addressed to the efficiency of brainstorming, this technique continues to be probably the most popular and accessible to a whole range of companies, being simple, cheap, easy and efficient if well prepared and conducted.
    I also like a version of brainstorming – brainwriting, where not very vocal people can bring up interesting ideas (5 min. all participants write their ideas on the theme on post-its and read one idea per round).
    I find very important in brainstorming:
    – the preparation – participants should know in advance the theme and look for information on the subject or receive prepared material, and
    – choosing the right theme – a problem to be solved, a job to be done.

  5. Mitch:

    Several thoughts –

    1; I’ve not read the Yale study but I would not be surprised if it would have failed a technocogninetics analysis. That would mean the test subjects weren’t tested for their creativity or creative experience before being included in the experiment. That means essentially there were no controls. However that doesn’t mean it wasn’t accurate. If the lone person was really good at creative thinking, and the people in the group weren’t, then the reported outcome makes sense. If the brainstorming group were all trained in creative thinking as well as the lone subject, I’d expect either the group would win or there might be a tie more times than not. If the lone subject wasn’t particularly creative and the group was, then the group would win. It all comes down to the creative training and not only who has it but who knows the best way to use it.

    2. You’re correct, (obviously from what I wrote above) about innovation leaning people being able to work together to produce extraordinary results and that, once again is the key – innovation leaning people working together. But how does that happen? By magic? Nope. By training people to be innovative in the first place. I see so little discussion about that anywhere, it’s hilarious to me.

    3. You’re exactly right about the media, but for the wrong reason. It’s not that they’re just on deadline, it’s that they’re actually not as smart as they used to be. I’ve been dealing professionally with the media since 1977, the year I got my first interview, and I’ll tell you many of them now wouldn’t know a story if it smacked them in the face. They don’t know usually how to vet stories either. Journalism is the only profession I know that allows for massive inaccuracies in the work product without some sort of penalty or getting fired. Sounds like a license to be stupid.

    All in all, I’m surprised about how many anti-brainstormers there are out there. I had no idea it was really that big of a deal. I’ll have to look some of them up when I need a good laugh. But at the same time, don’t write off us lone wolf, ivory tower idea generators, sitting alone in our rooms attempting to conjure up the next big thing.

    Lots of time we do…

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