Why brainstorming doesn't work and what to do about it

Updated: Jan 29

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Albert Einstein

When thinking about creativity in teams, we often imagine a bunch of people in front of a flipchart throwing on the paper whatever comes to their mind – brainstorming.

But, what actually is brainstorming? And what is it actually useful for?

This is how Mark McGuinness defines the term:

“‘Brainstorming’ is such a common word that it’s often used to describe any meeting or conversation designed to generate ideas. But what the critics are really complaining about are formal brainstorming sessions, governed by a set of rules that originated with advertising manager Alex Faickney Osborn, in his 1963 book Applied Imagination. The basic assumption is that by suspending judgement, people free themselves to come up with unusual and potentially useful ideas. The four most important rules are:

  • Generate as many ideas as possible – the more ideas you come up with, the better chance you have of coming up with good ones.

  • Don’t criticize – it will dampen peoples’ enthusiasm and kill their creativity.

  • Welcome unusual ideas – it’s important to break out of your usual mindset and consider wild and wacky ideas if you want to be really creative.

  • Combine and improve ideas – instead of criticizing ideas, look for way to use them in combination and/or make them better.

A leader is appointed to facilitate the session, encouraging people and making sure they stick to the rules. The leader is also responsible for collecting the ideas, usually by writing them on a whiteboard, flipchart or post it notes. Once ideas have been generated, they are evaluated at a later stage, to see which are worth implementing.”

(Mark McGuinness)

Even though traditional brainstorming does have value, for the purpose of energizing, team building and alignment around a topic, there is one main drawback to the method: most results are of little practical value.

This is why: most ideas produced during brainstorming sessions don’t work in reality, because of a lack of essential filters. Again, McGuiness explains this very clearly:

“Brainstorming is said to work because critical thinking is banned, allowing for a freer flow of original ideas. But again, the research raises doubts about this. One study compared classic brainstorming sessions with sessions in which brainstormers were told what criteria would be used to evaluate their ideas and encouraged to use this information to guide their idea generation. The ‘criteria cued’ groups produce fewer ideas, but a larger number of high-quality ideas. The danger with brainstorming is that quantity does not equal quality.

A common source of frustration for professionals is having to sit through brainstorming sessions in which other people generate a stream of ideas that ‘simply won’t work’. Sometimes the subject experts have tried the ideas before, sometimes they just have technical knowledge that allows them to see why the ideas will never work. But because of the rules of brainstorming, they aren’t allowed to say so, as they will be labelled ‘idea killers’.”

(Mark McGuinness)

Instead, ideas in brainstorming sessions tend to be vague and abstract.

As human beings, we are always searching for patterns that we can utilize for future ideas. The problem with brainstorming is that it doesn’t provide a framework for us to go beyond our default patterns to get effective results.

So, not only are time and energy wasted on less-than-productive discussions, the process also inherently inhibits the creation of truly very innovative ideas.

To summarize, Brainstorming can indeed be useful:

  • For a quick download of existing ideas.

  • To improve existing ideas.

  • For teambuilding.

  • To energize the team (at least until disappointment from results sets in).

  • To break hierarchical boundaries.

It is, therefore, important to consider what brainstorming can and cannot deliver:

If Not Brainstorming Then What?

If you want to innovate and come up with new ideas of any kind you need different thinking, not a packaged version of old thinking.

To get new thinking, you need a new approach. Systematic Inventive Thinking helps to break through old ways of thinking by forcing us to make associations and connections that may seem absurd at first, but are the very things we need to see new perspectives.

For more information about how Systematic Inventive Thinking can benefit your organization, contact us for a summary here.

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