The Two Meanings of Brainstorming

Brainstorming has two meanings and because it is a subject much discussed in this newsletter and elsewhere, it is worth being clear about the difference.

Formal Brainstorming

In creativity circles, brainstorming is a structured creative thinking process invented by Alex Osborn in the 1950s (I believe) for use in his advertising agency. He later wrote about it in his books and it quickly became the standard group based creative thinking process. In a traditional brainstorm, you post a problem on a whiteboard or chalkboard and invite a group of people to suggest ideas. There is to be no criticism of ideas and all ideas are welcome. Participants are encouraged to come up with crazy ideas. This formal brainstorming process has been coming under a lot of criticism lately, including by me. The process is based on a number of assumptions by Mr. Osborn -- but in a clinical setting, most of the assumptions have been proved wrong. Needless-to-say, many people in the creativity field -- especially those who make a living facilitating brainstorming -- refuse to accept the criticism and insist that brainstorming works for them.

Informal Brainstorming

Because of the popularity of the formal method, the verb "to brainstorm" has also become a generic term to describe coming up with a lot of ideas to solve a problem. In this case, there is no formal process involved. For instance, you and your spouse might brainstorm holiday destinations or ideas for a housewarming party. In this case, you are probably not running a formal brainstorm, but just sharing ideas.

Normally, in this journal, when I use the term "brainstorm" and its variants, I am referring to the formal process. For the informal activity, I use terms like "ideation"and "idea generation" in this situation.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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