When Brainstorming Works
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
I have been highly critical of brainstorming over the past year or two. And I am not the only one. The formal brainstorming process as defined by Alex Osborn some 60 years ago has come in for criticism since Mr. Osborn first wrote about it. But over the past couple of years, a growing body of research shows that all the assumptions behind brainstorming are flawed. (You can read more about this in my paper on anticonventional thinking - PDF). But the truth is, I am being unfair. Brainstorming is not an effective process when you need to generate highly creative ideas, especially if you want to identify a highly creative idea and implement it. Indeed, when I do anticonventional thinking workshops and ask how many people in the room have participated in traditional brainstorms, nearly everyone's hand goes up. Then when I ask who has participated in a brainstorm where a very creative ideas was generated and implemented. Nearly everyone's hand goes down!
But I do not believe brainstorming is useless. There are three areas where I have seen it used effectively.
When you Want to Implement Lots of Incremental Ideas
If you need a number of incremental ideas, rather than one big idea, brainstorming is great. For instance, the human resources division of a company might ask: "In what ways can we improve the working environment" and hope to get a number of small ideas, many of which will be implementable. The overall effect will be a clear improvement in the workplace environment as well as a feeling among employees of having contributed to that improvement.
Feel Good Innovation
As business processes go, brainstorming is probably second only to workplace massages for making people feel good. Lots of positive reinforcement combined with a rule against criticism pretty much ensures that all of the brainstormers in a session will feel good about themselves afterwards. Better still, the metric by which most brainstorms are judged is the number of ideas submitted. This is almost always a bigger number than participants expect. So, again, they can feel good about their participation. Lastly, managers who organise brainstorms can feel they are doing innovation and doing it well, again citing the number of ideas generated as proof that they've done innovation.
Legitimise a Pre-existing Idea
It may seem counterintuitive, but brainstorming is a great way for a manager to legitimise as innovative an idea that she has developed on her own. This may be done intentionally or subconsciously But if a manager has a pet idea she would like to see developed, she can organise a brainstorm. There she can either put forward the idea herself or, if she has discussed the idea with her colleagues, be reasonably sure that it will be added to the list of ideas generated in the brainstorm. If participants know the manager favours a particular idea, they are also likely to vote it as one of the best afterwards. External facilitators may not be aware that this is happening. But a number of people I've spoken with (who are not brainstorm facilitators) have seen this scenario happen.
Is this wrong? I don't think so. If it allows a good, creative idea to be realised, it cannot be a bad thing. Moreover, there is the potential that participants will build upon it, turning it into a better idea. But it is not necessarily fair to the other participants.
It is also worth noting that a talented brainstorm facilitator can modify the brainstorming technique sufficiently to overcome the inherent weaknesses of brainstorming and so see some highly creative ideas come out of it.
So, traditional brainstorming is coming under deserved criticism for its poor creative results. But that does not mean it is a bad process. It has its uses and, in the right hands, can be a reasonably effective approach for generating creative ideas.
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