October 14, 2015
In Defense of Brainstorming

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In the past few years I have noticed a curious trend in the media -- one I can no longer ignore -- and that is the appearance of seriously derisive articles about brainstorming by self-declared pundits and free lance writers.

Citing selected research on the subject and paying brief homage to Alex Osborne, the father of brainstorming, they make bold assertions about the ineffectiveness of the method, often claiming that "it does not work" and making grand declarations like "people are more creative away from the crowd" and "over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in a group."

While the previous two quotes do have some degree of truth associated with them, likening a brainstorm session to a "crowd" is not only a poor choice of metaphors, it is patently untrue.

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And while many irrational decisions have been made in groups since the beginning of time, to assume that irrational decisions will necessarily be made in a brainstorming session is only more proof that the writers of the recent spate of anti-brainstorming screeds have either never participated in a skillfully facilitated brainstorm session or are hopelessly late for their next journalistic deadline, refusing to take the time to go beyond their specious all-or-nothing conclusions drawn from someone else's research -- some of which is more than 50 years old.

To blatantly conclude that brainstorming sessions don't work is as absurd as saying that marriages don't work because 50% end in divorce or tourists shouldn't visit New York City because sometimes the traffic is bad.

What I'm guessing that brainstorming naysayers really mean is that bad brainstorming sessions don't work... or poorly facilitated brainstorming sessions don't work... or brainstorming sessions with the wrong mix of unprepared participants (marriage, anyone?) don't work.

Brainstorming critics like to cite a 1958 study, at Yale, that showed that students thinking on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups -- and their solutions were deemed to be more effective and feasible.

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Fine. Good. Terrific. I'm all for people thinking on their own in their dorm room... or Starbucks... or the zoo. That's a good thing. But as a replacement for a well-run brainstorming session? Why the either/or syndrome? Why not both?

Just because you had breakfast this morning doesn't necessarily mean you should skip dinner tonight, does it?

And besides, even a casual scan of the literature will reveal an extraordinary number of innovation-leaning people who joined forces with others to conceive something brilliant that none of them could have conjured on their own.

Think Jobs and Wozniak. Think Watson and Crick, Hewlett and Packard, John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- and any number of less famous ad hoc groups of aspiring innovators, working in all kind of organizations, who came out of their corporate dorm rooms long enough to jam with other seekers of possibility to jump start bold new advances in just about every industry on planet Earth.

But wait! There's more!

The anti-brainstorming forces are also fond of asserting that creativity is stifled in a brainstorming session.

Hello! Earth to journalists on deadline writing about brainstorming for a flight magazine. To claim that creativity will invariably be stifled in a brainstorming session is like saying that creativity will invariably be stifled in a marriage... or in a school... or in an organization. Possible? Yes. Whenever two or more people with egos get together, creativity has the potential to be stifled. But inevitable? No.

On the contrary, creativity is often sparked in a group -- even groups that are cranky, competitive, and strong-willed. Indeed, "creative dissonance" is often the catalyst for breakthrough -- NOT lone wolf, ivory tower idea generators sitting alone in their room attempting to conjure up the next big thing.

Brainstorm detractors -- as least the ones I've read -- are fond of citing "social loafing', "social blocking", "free riding", and other group-centric sociological phenomenon as proof of why brainstorming sessions should cease to exist.

Yes, I agree that some people who work in organizations fit this slacker stereotype. But there is no room for this kind of energy-sucking behavior in a well-run brainstorming session -- one that has been thoughtfully prepared, the right people invited, and with a skillful facilitator catalyzing the creative process.

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Would brainstorm detractors suggest that we get rid of cities because some of them are polluted, or get rid of marriages because some couples quarrel, or eliminate music because some people turn up their stereos just a little too loud when their neighbors are trying to sleep?

With all due respect (well, with at least some respect), I humbly invite the small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction to pause for a moment and contemplate any one of the following questions -- questions with the potential to spark the kind of creative thinking our small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction might have missed by not participating in a brainstorming session on this very topic.

1. How can brainstorm sessions be improved?

2. How can the facilitators of brainstorm sessions learn how to dependably spark creativity in others?

3. How can brainstorm sessions build on the good ideas generated by participants before the session begins?

4. How can team leaders or project managers ensure that the right mix of people attend their brainstorm sessions?

5. How can a group of brainstorm participants generate and abide by a set of guidelines that will radically increase their odds of generating breakthrough ideas?

6. How can brainstorming become part of a continuum of idea generation strategies in an organization, so its "idea eggs" are not all in the same basket?

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at October 14, 2015 07:47 PM

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