June 27, 2016
Why You Need to Defer Judgment During the Ideation Phase of a Brainstorming Session


Big thanks to Val Vadeboncoeur, Idea Champions' Director of Training, for this timely article on the importance of deferring evaluation during the ideation phase of a brainstorming session.

When Alex Osborn, co-founder of the advertising firm, BBD&O, first came up with the basic concept of brainstorming way back in the 1940's, he stressed that during idea generation "we should hold back criticism until the creative current has had every chance to flow." This principle of "deferring evaluation" of ideas until later has been a bedrock principle of brainstorming ever since. Osborn noted that human beings are of of two minds, what he called the "imaginative" or creative mind and the "judicial" or judging mind. These days, we tend to refer to these in the psych jargon of "right and left brains" today.

According to Osborn, the job of the imaginative mind was to generate ideas and see visions, while the job of the judicial mind was to analyze the ideas and select the best ones for implementation. His theory was that by deferring judgment during brainstorming we kept the critical faculty, the judging mind, from "jamming the creative faculty," the imaginative mind.

Why does this work? If you've ever experienced "writer's block," then you may well know the answer.


When a writer finds herself in the throes of being unable to create new work, the main obstacle usually is that the writer is making the very same error that brainstormers would make by trying to simultaneously generating ideas while evaluating them.

In the case of writer's block, what is often happening is that the writer is trying to write something new while editing it at the same time. This creates an endless start/stop loop of creating and judging which is frustrating to say the least. As soon as a sentence or phrase is written, the judging mind jumps in to evaluate it. "Is it too boring? Too whacky? Didn't you say this before? Will the reader understand it? Can it be said better? In a more concise way? Is that the right word there?"

No wonder some writers go mad.

The solution for this problem is simple. Write at one designated time and edit what you write at another and always keep these two disciplines separate.

Maya Angelou would write in the morning and edit in the afternoon. Ernest Hemingway did the same. Joan Didion has a similar routine. Didion says that she writes for as long as she can in the morning and then in late afternoon, right before dinner, she has a drink and goes over what she wrote earlier in the day. "The drink helps," she says.

Some writers write for many days at a time before going into the editing mode. But, the effective pattern is clear -- writing should be a separate activity from editing.

The same goes for the creative act of brainstorming. Osborn advised having TWO brainstorm sessions at different times. The first session was designed to generate the ideas and the second was to analyze, select and develop the best ones.

In my experience, if you have enough time, you can do both in sequence in the same session but you have to keep these two events completely separate by including a break between them.

Enforcing the ground rule of "deferring judgment" during the idea generation segment of a brainstorming session is very important. I often say to miscreants "right now, all ideas are innocent until proven guilty. You'll have your opportunity to shoot them down later. Just not now."

If you ignore this basic fact of creativity -- that the imaginative mind must be given free rein to run without the constraints of the saddle, stirrup and harness of the judicial mind -- then you put yourself and your participants in danger of brainstorm asphyxiation.

You know the scene. A brainstorm participant volunteers an idea and, automatically and on cue, another participant tells everyone why he it won't work. The idea is withdrawn and never captured, or even worse, a long argument ensues back and forth as to the merits of the idea. If this continues for any length of time, everyone becomes frustrated and annoyed. And your brainstorm session can't even get started.

You know the cure. Keep the idea generation phase of brainstorming sacrosanct from the judgments of the left (or judicial) brain by enforcing the brainstorm ground rule of deferring judgment.

You can let the left brain out later to do what it does best -- compare and contrast. Weigh. Measure. Sort. And choose.

But never let both sides of your brain out together at the same time -- a sure path to madness... and a really frustrating brainstorming session.

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at June 27, 2016 10:38 PM

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