Brainstorming: There is a Better Way

By Greg Roth

There are several rites of passage for association work, but probably none is more controversial than “brainstorming.” The mere mention of the term elicits equal number of exasperated eye rolls and hopeful eyebrow raises.

“We may just solve this problem!”

“We may just have lost a perfectly good afternoon.”

Over the years, I’ve been on both sides. I’ve greatly enjoyed hearing the discussion of potential ways to attack a problem. I’ve also spaced out thinking of the great sandwiches of my life, while someone other than myself stood at the whiteboard and feverishly wrote down what people said with increasingly illegible handwriting.

Over the years, brainstorming has magically managed to acquire the dual reputation of exciting strategy and soul-sucker fraud, as people rush to either defend or defeat its very existence in the conference rooms where we do it.

So, what’s the deal? Which reputation is deserved? Does it work or not?

Tell Me About This Brainstorming

In the spirit of things, let’s start with a simple exercise. Go ahead, type “brainstorming” into your favorite search tool.

The simplest definition is “group discussion to produce ideas or solve problems.” Fair enough, nothing controversial there. It’s probably safe to say that this is what most people are referring to when they call for a brainstorming meeting. They simply want company, because brainstorming in a room alone feels strange. If that person is talking out loud to themselves and the conference room has glass walls, the two common conclusions you’d draw are:

1) “They’re probably on a call,” or
2) “Oh God, we have to have them taken away; this is horrifying.”
Therefore, brainstorming means you have company and you avoid the straightjacket.

Where Did Brainstorming Come From?

The term brainstorming was invented/popularized by Alex Osborn, a Madison Avenue ad man at BBDO, who first described the process in his 1942 book “How to Think Up,” and it was further expanded in his 1963 book “Applied Imagination.”

The method, used at BBDO, consisted of two main principles:

• Defer judgement
• Go for quantity

For some reason, even though there have been countless expansions and reconfiguration of the group creative setting over the decades, these two principles are routinely cited and followed. Seems like a nice story about enduring principles. This should be your first tip off that something’s amiss.

Who Are These ‘Fans’ of Brainstorming?

Before we get to the how of brainstorming, let’s consider the personalities involved in the brainstorming is good vs. brainstorming is bad war. Here’s who normally suggests the traditional group brainstorm:

• Bosses and executives
• Managers who need to produce a “breakthrough”
• People who have heard the term in a sentence
• Improv people who love “games”
• Some researchers trying to prove it has merit
• Extroverts
• People who use the phrase “think outside the box”
• People who don’t normally create something with other people on a regular basis

There’s a common thread here of folks who want solutions, but who don’t know the answer or who aren’t normally charged with generating ideas to solve problems. They do know they have people who might be able to help. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, it’s a perfectly legit situation to be in: “I’ll get my best people on it.”

What Do Brainstorming Sessions Look Like?

Ask yourself a quick question: what’s the most famous brainstorming session, from either real life or fiction media (movies, TV, theater, etc.)?
I’m going to guess of those of you who could actually offer a guess, 99% of those guesses were one of these:

• The Internship where Vince Vaughn says, “Let’s brainstorm this puppy.”
• The Key & Peele sketch about the Gremlins 2 brainstorming session.
• They did it on Mad Men, right? (No, they did not.)
• Can’t think of one but I know it involves a white board. (Not wrong, but not right either.)

See, that’s one of the problems. There isn’t really a definitive representation of brainstorming that is even remotely well-known enough to point to. The closest thing is probably from an old ABC News clip of the design firm IDEO, which through its populist approach to “design thinking” has shared with the world how it invented things like the Apple mouse or built a better grocery store shopping cart.

This is far from a “famous” example – if it’s even a brainstorm at all – but, judging from the comments on that video, it is very popular as homework assigned to high school and undergrad students. So, I guess teachers like it.
The truth is most brainstorms have a common look and feel not because everyone is familiar with Alex Osborn and his book from 80 years ago, but because most everyone has never actually seen a great brainstorming session, so their understanding of it is a default view that seems like it would work.

In most cases, brainstorming is used as shorthand. It means a “group social experience as a solution to what is actually an individually-based focus problem.” This is prioritizing the group dynamic over an actual valuable process. Ideas require time, focus, investigation, clarifying, experimenting, and feedback, among other things. Traditional group brainstorming seems like it’s working in service to those needs, because it feels good in the room. Things are happening! We filled up the writing space! There are numbers to feel proud of! Great work everyone! Can someone take a picture of the whiteboard?

How About the ‘Haters’ of Brainstorming?

So, who are the people who don’t like brainstorming?

• Lots of creative types
• Introverts
• Anti-social people
• Contrarian thinkers
• Knowledge hoarders and control freaks
• Researchers who like to disprove prevailing wisdom
• People who are always 5 minutes late to meetings
• People who resent the people who are always 5 minutes late to meetings

You can see a recurring theme here among personality types – those who are quite comfortable doing things on their own. It’s a common refrain that “everyone is born creative,” but it’s a mostly useless insight. Yes, everyone is born with the ability to do a thing, but unless they hone their craft over the years through practice and study, and community and more practice, the fact that they were born with potential is mostly about yesterday.

Think about why you would do a group brainstorm in the first place. It comes down to one simple premise: the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. What you want is a process that makes that happen. But, for folks that create every day, the act of creating becomes a skill, not a talent. That makes group brainstorming largely unnecessary.

When someone claims that “brainstorming doesn’t work,” they usually cite a well-heeled scientific study or just simply say “research says.” If you drill down with a “why” or “what about it doesn’t work,” the most common complaints are some combination of these:

• Hijacks thinking because one person is talking and the rest have to listen instead of forming their own ideas.
• Blocks production when one person actively keeps others from offering ideas.
• Results in room-safe thinking or groupthink, because of the risk of looking foolish.
• Freezes the discussion in evaluation apprehension.
• Becomes a guessing game or a to-do list, instead of a source of inspiration.
• Generates unreasonable ideas in pursuit of “going wide” makes people feel like the session is wasting time.
• Prompts “social matching,” where when one idea is offered, the next is just a variation on that idea instead of something fresh, because we want to be liked.
• Encourages “social loafing” or the tendency to tune out or check one’s phone under the guise of “just looking something up.”
• Wastes sticky notes that would be better used for short grocery shopping runs.

Most of these are widely accepted symptoms of bad team collaboration. So, when someone says “let’s brainstorm” and they are referring to the most unremarkable definition of the word, all of these limitations come into play. Unless you have a team of creative all-stars who can rise above a poorly constructed collaboration, you are essentially choosing the most social, but least effective structure for creating.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The real question isn’t to brainstorm or not to brainstorm. The real question is, how best to use the group?

Say you have a problem. Say you also have a team. Now, let’s say you’re not allowed to get people together to generate ideas about how to solve that problem. How would you go about it? Take a few minutes to write down 3-5 ideas. Guess what? You just answered your own question.

Every member of your team is (should be) uniquely able to solve the problems of the day. They understand their own thinking. They know how to contemplate a problem and imagine potential solutions in a way that works for them.

• They might write things out.
• They might doodle or draw.
• They might be really good at researching then using that as stimulus to fresh ideas.

The key to creative problem solving isn’t setting specific ground rules at a group meeting to enable folks to more quickly think of things on the spot in the room or remove fear in a social setting. The key is individual empowerment mixed with group filtering.

If you hired the right people and trust them to think independently, challenging them individually beats brainstorming every time. It’s more efficient, more empowering, more engaging, and less dependent on creating the perfect environment to encourage ideas.

To look at it another way, brainstorming meetings should be replaced by “show and tell” meetings. Get the ideas first, and then use the group to assess and critique those ideas.

Final Thoughts

In order to make the individual efforts of your people more meaningful and successful, you need to clearly articulate the problem and the conditions for ideas. Some ways to do this are:

• Distill the challenge into a simple statement of 2-3 paragraphs, essentially what you’d say at the beginning of a brainstorming meeting.
• Talk about what you expect and what you want to avoid.
• Outline with the challenge is and what the solution should accomplish.
• Prioritize types of thinking over finished solutions wrapped in a nice bowtie (aka “best practices”).
• Discourage the complicated 23-point action plan and encourage picking a specific, doable part of a larger problem.
• Facilitate the group critique meeting. Any group meeting is only as good as the hand that guides it. If you or someone else in the group has this skill, there’s a strong chance you’ll have a substantive, energizing discussion about important problems.

Brainstorming has a long history of misusing the power of the group. By shifting responsibility of the group experience away from creative imagination and toward evaluation, you imbue them with an entirely different status. They aren’t “creatives” anymore; they’re investigators.

They are free to inspect, question, wonder aloud, discuss, debate, and ultimately help the person with the original idea better understand the path they’re on. That is a much better way to get the best out of people while getting the best ideas to the finish line.

Greg Roth is a speaker, facilitator, creative consultant and founder of The Idea Enthusiast LLC. Learn more at

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