In defense of brainstorming

I’m no brainstorming zealot – there are many ways idea generation techniques out there and they all have their place. However now and then brainstorming, as a concept, gets attacked, which is almost as ridiculous as a war on terror. Recently Marc Andresen had a short post called Brainstorming is a bad idea that deserves a response.

Rarely discussed factors that impact the value of brainstorming:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?. If the goal is raw numbers of ideas you might be better off with other methods, which Andresen points out (via a quote from the excellent book The Medici Effect). However if you want people to share in the creative process, get buzzed by riffing off each others ideas, having them all in a room together is very useful. Brainstorming, as an occasional group activity has benefits beyond the ideas themselves. Some techniques are better for generating ideas early on in a project, and others are better for finding ideas for specific problems late in a project.
  2. Who is running the brainstorming session?. The facilitator who runs the room can make or kill any brainstorming session. It’s up to them to manage the room, keep things fun and fast, to make sure ideas are written down, and to prevent ratholes from happening, or blowhards taking over the room. It’s a role most people don’t perform well and the skill rarely has anything to do with seniority.
  3. Who is in the room? Even with a great facilitator, if the people in the room hate each other, are morons, are afraid to be creative, or simply have horrible chemistry, the session is bound to fail. In many situations it’s best to keep brainstorming meetings small – large groups have more complicated dynamics that groups of 4 or 5.
  4. Is anyone informed on the actual method?. The term brainstorming is often used as the sloppy label for any number of half-baked idea generation techniques. The actual term comes from Alex Osborn‘s 1953 book Applied Imagination. The technique, as he defined it, compensates for many of the complaints most people have about the ad-hoc group creativity attempts they’ve experienced.

I’ve yet to see a single study that controlled for, or even mentioned these factors – which is entirely unfair to evaluating brainstorming, or any creative thinking technique. If I’ve missed some research you know of, please leave a comment.

Further reading

  • How to run a brainstorming meeting. I’ve run a crazy number of brainstorming meetings in my life and made every mistake there is. This essay is my tip sheet for running them right.
  • The Myths of Innovation. My book goes in depth on various misnomers about creative thinking, innovation and the history of invention, including how epiphanies happen and the role of techniques like brainstorming.
  • COM597 Syllabus from University of Washington. This is the syllabus for the UW course I taught on creativity and ideas, and it shows one approach to exploring the many methods of creative thinking.
  • Applied Imagination, By Alex Osborn. I discuss this book in detail in The Myths of Innovation and highly recommend it to anyone who runs or participates in brainstorming sessions.

(Thanks to Gernot Ross for the tip)

10 Responses to “In defense of brainstorming”

  1. Andrej Gregov

    Nightline did a great piece on Ideo’s brainstorming process (the Deep Dive). Excerpt here: Full DVD here (recommended for students of product development):

    I wouldn’t say brainstorming is bad. But certainly, if you have a average to poor facilitator, more ideas probably can be generated individually. But with a strong facilitator, you can tap into the whole “wisdom of the crowds” effect and get better ideas out of a group than you could from a single visionary source. The Ideo DVD/process shows how brainstorming can be incredibly successful.

  2. Jay Hamilton-Roth

    I’ve found a way to strongly improve the brainstorming process is to break the meeting in two.

    The first meeting allows everyone to ask questions to define the true problem (and not the symptoms of the problem). People can ask what’s been tried and what hasn’t. People can find out why the problem matters.

    The group takes a break (an hour, a day, etc.). During that time, brains are still somewhat thinking about the problem (the more important the problem, the higher the likelihood).

    The group reconvenes, and reminds everyone what the core issue(s) are, and then traditional techniques are used.

    This allows for intuition to help out in brainstorming, rather than rapid-fire ideas.

  3. Jim Argeropoulos

    Have you read any of Edward DeBono’s work? In particular, his book Six Thinking Hats seems very applicable. Many people use some of the techniques, but when you are intentional they become more powerful.
    White Hat: Neutral, objective facts and figures
    Red Hat: An emotional view
    Black Hat: Why it cannot be done
    Yellow Hat: covers hope and positive thinking
    Green Hat: Creative and new ideas
    Blue Hat: Concerned with control and the organization of the thinking process

    DeBono goes to great length to discus how poorly brainstorming is done and how explicite use of these viewpoints can help.

  4. Innovation Catalyst

    Larry Keeley at Doblin is perhaps the most outspoken critic of brainstorming. I find that what they seem to have in common is a strawman idea of brainstorming that characterizes it as unfocused, with no defined problem to solve and no creative thinking tools used. Plus no implementation plan.

  5. K T Cat

    However now and then brainstorming, as a concept, gets attacked, which is almost as ridiculous as a war on terror

    I like your blog and am enjoying your writing. However, after working with the Marines and SPECOPS, I’d like to see you stick to one of the key dictums of writing: write about what you know.

    The war on terror is not one of those things for you.

  6. Scott

    KT: Perhaps “war on terror” should have been in quotes – I make no claim to an expertise on the war in Iraq or warfare in general. However questioning the value of claiming a war on an abstract concept seems a reasonable thing for a thoughtful person to do.



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