The war against brainstorming


Creativity War

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a minor war raging among creativity professionals. On one side we have the creative problem solving enthusiasts – let’s call them the pro-brainstormers – and on the other side we have the anti-brainstormers. Thus far it has been a well mannered war of largely polite criticism together with informed argument flying back and forth. I hope it stays that way, I like to think the creativity professionals are above making death threats and using rude language as we have seen in other controversies recently.

Before I go further, let’s look at a little history. Alex Osborn, one of the greats of advertising, coined the term “brainstorming” more than 60 years ago to describe a technique that he had developed. It is what you would probably consider traditional brainstorming in which there is a facilitator, a chalkboard (or similar) and a group of people. The facilitator poses a challenge and the people suggest ideas. All ideas are welcome and participants are told to reserve judgement of ideas until after the ideation is completed.

In time, Osborn partnered up with SydneyParnes to develop further and refine brainstorming into a structured process they called creative problem solving (CPS). They founded the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College which claims to be the first institute to offer an advanced degree in creativity.

Flaws in the Process

Not long after brainstorming became a recognised process, other institutes put aspects of the process to test and found them wanting. Early tests compared the quantity and quality of ideas generated in brainstorming groups versus those generated by individuals and found that when the same number of people generated ideas individually, their combined ideas were more creative than when the same number of individuals generated ideas collaboratively in a group. However, both the collaborative group and the individuals followed the CPS process of writing down as many ideas as possible and reserving judgement.

With the growing trendiness of innovation and creativity in business, it is hardly surprising that testing of CPS and brainstorming in particular have picked up. Recent tests are also demonstrating that the most sacrosanct rule of brainstorming, reserve judgement, is not effective. When participants are allowed to criticise ideas, ideation events result in more creative ideas. *

Rise of the Anti-brainstormers

With this growing body of brainstorming-critical research, a small number of creative professionals have come up with alternative approaches for generating ideas. They have taken the results of the research and applied their own experience to create new methods. I will confess right now, that I am a member of the anti-brainstormer camp: my anticonventional thinking method addresses the weaknesses of brainstorming, takes account of the research and follows the behaviour of artists and other highly creative people when they collaborate. So, I am not writing this article as an unbiased outsider!

I am not alone. Notably, Jonah Lehrer, in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works, and Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: the Power of Introverts have also criticised brainstorming.

Not Taking It Lying Down

Of course the pro-brainstormers are not taking the criticism lightly and a barrage of blog posts defending CPS and brainstorming have been written in recent months. Most of these attack the points made by the authors above and criticise them based on the blog writers’ own experience, apparent weaknesses in research and other more brainstorm-favourable research.

Incidentally, I have also received a number of criticisms from pro-brainstormers criticising anticonventional thinking. Most of this criticism has been polite and reasoned. But not all of it.

However, I do find it ironic that in the field of creativity, which is all about new things, many people are clinging to brainstorming and CPS simply because it is the way they have always done creativity. Surely, the same people would criticise a corporate client who refused to change a process simply because that was the way the client had been doing things for the past 50 years.

Deep Investment

We should also bear in mind that there are a large number of innovation consultants and facilitators who have been running brainstorming sessions for years. They understandably do not want to see their pet method discredited. That could be disastrous for their businesses! Hence it is in their interests to argue in favour of brainstorming.

More importantly, for their clients, such pro-brainstormers have doubtless honed their approach to brainstorming and CPS to account for the process’s weaknesses.

To criticise my own camp, it is all too easy to criticise CPS and brainstorming in order to provoke people and get attention. Even so, alternative methods are usually inspired in part by brainstorming.

Good for the Field

All in all, I believe that this controversy and bickering within the field of creativity is a good thing. Moreover, whether or not one is pro-brainstorming, the debate is good for all camps if it has us questioning long established processes, defending those processes and trying to create new and better processes.

Indeed, that’s what creativity is all about, isn’t it?!


* For more details and references on research on brainstorming methodology, please read my article on anticonventional thinking.


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




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