Is Brainstorming a Waste of Time?


Photo by jurvetson

Richard Huntington, Director of Strategy for Saatchi & Saatchi in the UK, has a pathological hatred of brainstorming:

I hate brainstorms.

I hate running them, I hate contributing to them and I hate using them to solve problems.

They waste huge amounts of time and talent and they are no fucking good at delivering decent ideas.

And so six months ago I cleansed my professional life of this trojan horse of mediocrity, favouring aggregated individual working or two person thinking sessions.

I suggest it’s time you gave them the boot too.

Death to the brainstorm. Long live great ideas.

He’s not alone. In spite of the fact that brainstorming is virtually synonymous with creativity in some quarters, there are plenty of people who would love to erase brainstorms from their working life.

In some cases these are people who wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘creative’, who find it embarrassing and slightly intimidating to be asked to come up with wacky ideas in front of their colleagues. But the critics also include some very talented and successful creative professionals, like Huntington or Gordon Torr, formerly Creative Director of J. Walter Thompson, Europe, Middle East and Africa:

by far the most egregious example of creative mismanagement is the brainstorm …[Brainstorming] didn’t work, it never had worked, it never will work, and there was proof that it couldn’t work way back in 1965. If, during all this time, any ideas found their way out of brainstorming sessions and were implemented successfully to the great delight of all, it was in spite of the technique, not because of it.

(Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People)

I’ve heard similar complaints from quite a few creative directors and professional creatives – instead of seeing brainstorming as essential to the company’s creative process, they see it as a chore, something to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that they can get on with the real business of creativity. Particularly in companies where everyone is expected to contribute to the brainstorm – not just the ‘creative team’ – some creative directors have said they see it as a matter of political expediency rather than a source of inspiration: by involving other departments, everyone gets to ‘have their say’, but the really valuable ideas don’t emerge until afterwards, when the creatives start work in earnest.

And as Gordon Torr points out, there’s a lot of ‘proof’ from research to back up the criticisms.

What Exactly Is Brainstorming?

‘Brainstorming’ is such a common word that it’s often used to describe any meeting or conversation designed to generate ideas. But what the critics are really complaining about are formal brainstorming sessions, governed by a set of rules that originated with advertising manager Alex Faickney Osborn, in his 1963 book Applied Imagination. The basic assumption is that by suspending judgement, people free themselves to come up with unusual and potentially useful ideas. The four most important rules are:

  1. Generate as many ideas as possible – the more ideas you come up with, the better chance you have of coming up with good ones.
  2. Don’t criticise – it will dampen peoples enthusiasm and kill their creativity.
  3. Welcome unusual ideas – it’s important to break out of your usual mindset and consider wild and wacky ideas if you want to be really creative.
  4. Combine and improve ideas – instead of criticising ideas, look for way to use them in combination and/or make them better.

A leader is appointed to facilitate the session, encouraging people and making sure they stick to the rules. The leader is also responsible for collecting the ideas, usually by writing them on a whiteboard, flipchart or post it notes. Once ideas have been generated, they are evaluated at a later stage, to see which are worth implementing.

The Case against Brainstorming

There has been a lot of research into brainstorming, most of which confirms the criticisms levelled at the technique:

Not enough good ideas

Studies have compared the quality and quantity of ideas generated in group brainstorming sessions with those generated by individuals working in isolation. The researchers found that groups produce fewer good/relevant ideas than those produced by individuals. According to the researchers, it’s more effective to ask team members to generate ideas individually or in pairs before a group meeting at which ideas are shared and compared.

Lack of critical filters

Brainstorming is said to work because critical thinking is banned, allowing for a freer flow of original ideas. But again, the research raises doubts about this. One study compared classic brainstorming sessions with sessions in which brainstormers were told what criteria would be used to evaluate their ideas and encouraged to use this information to guide their idea generation. The ‘criteria cued’ groups produce fewer ideas, but a larger number of high-quality ideas. The danger with brainstorming is that quantity does not equal quality.

A common source of frustration for professionals is having to sit through brainstorming sessions in which other people generate a stream of ideas that ‘simply won’t work’. Sometimes the subject experts have tried the ideas before, sometimes they just have technical knowledge that allows them to see why the ideas will never work. But because of the rules of brainstorming, they aren’t allowed to say so, as they will be labelled ‘idea killers’.


One theory for the poor performance of brainstorming groups is that people feel inhibited by the presence of others, particularly their boss or other senior workers.


In a group situation, lazy individuals can get away with contributing little to the discussion, allowing noisier colleagues to do all the work. If asked to produce ideas in isolation, everyone has to contribute their share.

Taking turns

In sessions where people have to take turns to speak, this can slow down the idea generation process. If you think of an idea while someone else is speaking, you have to wait your turn to share it with the group. By the time your turn comes round, you may have forgotten it or lost interest. Even if you manage to remember it, the chances are the effort of remembering will have stopped you thinking of other ideas in the meanwhile.


In spite of being encouraged to come up with wild or wacky ideas, there’s a tendency for groups to converge on similar kinds of idea. Once this starts to happen, it can be hard for an individual to propose a radically different idea, and risk going against the flow. If not properly managed, a brainstorming session can lead to ‘creativity by committee’, in which good ideas are diluted by consensus and compromise.

In Defence of Brainstorming

So the case against brainstorming is pretty damning. Or is it?

Stanford Engineering School Professor Robert Sutton is critical of the critics:

Here’s the problem: Most academic studies of brainstorming are rigorous, but irrelevant to the challenge of managing creative work. They argue that people brainstorming alone speak more ideas (per person) into a microphone during a 10-minute period than those in a group brainstorm. A “productivity loss” of group brainstorming happens because people take turns talking and therefore can’t spew out ideas as fast.

But comparing whether creativity happens best in groups or alone is pretty silly when you look at how creative work is actually done. At creative companies, people switch between both modes so seamlessly that it is hard to notice where individual work ends and group work starts. At group brainstorms, individuals often “tune out” for a few minutes to sketch a product or organizational structure inspired by the conversation, and then jump back in to show others their idea…

Many academic experiments into brainstorming are fake. They usually involve people who have no prior experience or training in group brainstorming. They often are led by undergraduates in psychology classes who are briefly presented a list of “rules” and then instructed to spend 10 or 15 minutes generating novel ideas about topics that they know – and most likely care – nothing about. A common question in these experiments is: “What would happen if everyone had an extra thumb?” This might be fun but isn’t a problem that they will ever face.

For Sutton, the problem isn’t with the technique but the way it’s applied: ‘when brainstorming sessions are managed right and skillfully linked to other work practices, they can promote remarkable innovation.’

Tom Kelly agrees with Sutton. And as Kelly is General Manager of IDEO, the world-famous design consultancy whose work for clients such as Apple, Kodak, Pepsi and Gap has racked up over 1,000 patents and more design awards than any other company, he should know what he’s talking about:

the problem with brainstorming is that everyone thinks they already do it. … many business people treat brainstorming as a checkbox, a threshold variable, like “Can you ride a bicycle?” or “Do you know how to tie your shoes?” They overlook the possibility that brainstorming can be a skill, an art, more like playing the piano than tying your shoes. You’re always learning and can get continuously better. You can become a brainstorming virtuoso …

Brainstorming is practically a religion at IDEO, one we practice nearly every day. Though brainstorms themselves are often playful, brainstorming as a tool – as a skill – is taken quite seriously. And in a company without many rules, we have a very firm idea about what constitutes a brainstorm and how it should be organised.

(Tom Kelly, The Art of Innovation)

What’s going on here? How come the academics can’t agree on the evidence for and against brainstorming as a tool for creativity? And how come there are outstanding creative practitioners arguing passionately on both sides of the debate?

EDIT: Bob Sutton has written a great post on his blog in response to this one. I particularly like this bit:

brainstorming only makes a difference if it is part of a larger creative process, as you see at IDEO, Pixar, and other places that do real creative work.

Over to You

Do you think brainstorming is a waste of time?

Or do you think it just needs to be done properly to be effective?

Come on, let’s get as many responses as we can – just type the first thing that comes into your mind! 🙂

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

Hosted by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness, The 21st Century Creative podcast helps you succeed as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions, and opportunities of the 21st century.

Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Responses to this Post

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Awesome Creativity Blogs | January 29, 2009


  1. Just as with any other technique it depends on the people involved and how it’s applied. I haven’t found brainstorming to be very productive myself, but I can understand it working well for other people

    • I have found Brainstorming to be a waste of time and recommend publications of Horowitz or Goldenberg about the ASIT method as a much better approach.

  2. (just typing first thoughts here!)

    Maybe it depends on the type of problem if brainstorming is successful or not?

    Maybe it depends on the people who are in the room?

    Maybe depending on your Myers-Briggs profile you’ll either love brainstorming or hate it…??

  3. FIrst I think the techniques used depend on whether you are trying to create little c or Big C creativity ideas. What follows is for little c and maybe some middle sized C solutions.

    .I have successfully applied brainstorming many times to solve problems or improve our systems. But we do it differently. We make everyone aware of the problem and discuss briefly the critical factors to success (so in essence – get to know your problem using critical thinking). We then ask them to go off and think of ways they would solve the problem. aka individual brainstorming. When we regroup we discuss everyone’s ideas and add to them or tune them if needed. Then we usually go off and test one or two possibilities (aka validation).

    We don’t ask everyone to have a solution. A trainer usually won’t know how to solve a software performance problem. But a trainer will be able to hear and figure out of a solution will impact users (critical success factor).

    Since most of these are for little c and middle sized C solutions we don’t need wild and crazy ideas mostly. But at times we have applied what seemed like crazy ideas successfully (like maybe we just cancel the project, are they really using this system anyway?)

    Important in the process is to put time and distance between the getting to know your problem phase and the bring ideas back to the group. This incubation phases is usually more critical then the brainstorming that people do in advance of incubation and after. This is where the real work is done in the Right Brain.

    Thanks for the post. Its important to discuss what works for people and what does not work.


  4. Companies that thrive on ideas genuinely need braintorms. However, companies that only rely on this technique will miss great ideas and – worse – ones that run brainstorms badly will suffer from creative inertia.

    I can understand the ad agency perspective – indeed, I work with agencies and have friends who work in creative teams there. In adland, small, creative teams of two people tend to generate the ideas underpinning award-winning work. For instance, an art director and a copywriter. However, in companies that require a larger chunk of the workforce involved in ideas and innovation, processes like brainstorms are mission-critical. However, a creative wizard is essential to help make trhese processes work.

    Virtuoso orchestration is absolutely vital. Where would an Oscar-winning movie be without an ace director or producer at the helm? Brainstorms needs someone with wisdom to extract ideas, energy to make the sparks fly, and verve to channel others’ energies are crucial skills. So many companies get it wrong. Some simply feel they HAVE to run brainstorms after a meeting in order to justify having so many people in the same place at a particular time.

    In the PR industry, where I work, everyone who works with clients has to think laterally to generate ideas, angles, innovations on a daily basis. However, most of their time is dominated by vertical thinking. As such, a brainstorm is an important tool to help people shift mental gears. Done right, the session overpowers left brain thinking, meaning people can access their imaginative side more. The technique helps to institutionalise creativity.

    There are other ways – inspired thinking by individuals, parroting, and assembling Beatles-style groups of people who, as a team, can produce outstanding ideas without a formal, generative situation. Ok, in the hyper creative music world, the jamming sessions that produce the best material depend on getting the right group + chemistry + desire + a bunch of other elements, and one wrong band member can derail the session – just ask Slash from Guns n Roses. And yes, some companies have their own Picassos, individuals who thrive on their own creative bent, churning out work for the sheer love of it.

    In the end though, the most innovative companies are the ones that know how to tap into the range of creative processes – and people – optimise them. Rubbising brainstorm says more about your inability to make them work, rather than generate great ideas.

  5. (excuse the appalling mauling of grammar and spelling in my comment!)

    • Scot

      You’re completely excused for any grammar and spelling errors. Coming up with the term “appalling mauling” more than makes up for any such errors!


  6. My experience leading brainstorming sessions is that many good ideas can indeed be generated. This of course can be very important to the organization, but I found that very possibly the largest benefit of well led brainstorming sessions was buy in from various stake holders in the company. When everyone feels involved and valuable then everyone performs better. Also, various talents and skill sets approach problems in different ways, seeing this and experiencing this in action can lead to greater inter-department understanding and communication.


  7. “Don’t criticize”

    Such a small, but vital aspect of successful brainstorming, and one I’ve seen overlooked far too often.

  8. I always have problems when I’m asked to brainstorm because I have a fairly passive personality. When someone else is speaking, I wait for them to finish before I start talking. However, in a brainstorming situation, everyone talks into one another and I never end up expressing the ideas I’ve come up with before I forget them! I do a lot better individually, and the group I work with tends to use many suggestions that I’ve come up with on my own time.

  9. are you asking us to “brainstorm”?

    My best ideas always come after the event, usually “triggered” by something someone said at the event…

    I don’t normally contribute much in a “brainstorming session” and feel pressure…later in a more relaxed state of mind is when I get creative.

  10. Although brainstorming is supposed to be free-flowing thought, there still has to be some structure.

    Set time limits, control the scope of the discussion, and have someone in charge leading the discussion.

    Sounds to me that the failed brainstorming mentioned about was out of control.

  11. I still believe in it’s power.

    With the wrong people (or too many people), yes, it can be a waste of time. I’ve been in some bad sessions where more time is spent getting people to focus on the problem as opposed to seeing who can come up with the goofiest notion to make the room laugh.

    I think it’s like anything. You get better at it with experience.

    It shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all though. Some of my best ideas have come while lying in bed in the middle of the night, while driving to the office, or even in the shower.

  12. From someone who has been in too many “storm” sessions to remember, my biggest beef has been and will always be the issue of “Freeloading.”

    I think there is a definite time and place for “storming” for sure but the caveat is kind of a “leader beware” meaning whomever is leading the session, driving the bus, whatever… needs to have a realistic outcome in mind. He/She needs to know his his/her fellow “stormers” going in, then take mental notes as the proceedings play themselves out and use these notes for future use and reference fo the next “storm” front.

  13. The rule about not criticizing is the most difficult to adhere to. As the post says “Sometimes the subject experts have tried the ideas before, sometimes they just have technical knowledge that allows them to see why the ideas will never work.”

    However, I have seen some amazing results when ideas are turned on their heads on purpose. Traditional technical solutions, applied “the way they always have been and must be”, can give way to truly innovative ideas when the answer “it can’t be done” is bypassed. Engineers can be very creative at solving problems when parameters change.

  14. I agree with Bebizzy that you have to have a control… so the team member that has been instructed by a client or supervisor for ideas must lead the conversation – help it to move forward when the group gets hung up on one idea. Also that person sets a time limit and the group must finish at that mark… there is also one writer… That way you have exact 30 minute sessions that both don’t waste billable hours but gets as much new information as possible and meetings can be transcribed immediately…

    I personally love brainstorms because in addition to getting new ideas flowing, it helps other co-workers in the office to participate in new client work that they normally don’t get to participate in…

  15. Maybe it depends on the person. I perform terribly in groups. Others seem to shine.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised if the brainstorm resulted in clearer thinking during my alone-time, though the reverse may also be true. It’s hard to say.

    The big question, from a business stand point, is whether 10 heads are better than 2, and if so, whether they’re 5 times better. At best, even if brainstorms can lead to better ideas, the incremental benefit of each additional person is reduced exponentially.

  16. I really value brainstorming sessions. They can generate great ideas, especially if participants are prepped ahead of time. Where it falls apart for me is the application: something said in a session today may not be applicable now, but if we can hold onto that concept ‘somewhere’, it might be exactly what is needed 6 months down the road.

    Creativity on demand is tough. I also think too often brainstorming sessions get way off track, with not enough structure.

  17. In general I believe that brainstorming is a waste of time in generating new and exciting solutions. Mostly because, in my experience at least, brainstorms tend to include too many people just to include them, and most of these people aren’t involved enough to put any thought into the subject before. The points made about “group think” and “creativity by committee” are my main criticisms of the whole exercise, as they tend to be the outcomes of almost all the brainstorms I’ve participated in.

    I find it much more useful to have individuals or groups work on the idea first, and then have the larger group convene to discuss those ideas and see what bringing the ideas together sparks. Brainstorming as everyone comes in cold and we leave with our solution is a fallacy, and pretty much a waste of time.

  18. Scot nailed it for me. As a former “ad creative” (shudder), I found brainstorming with my art director(s) incredibly useful and productive. The ideas that moved forward weren’t always directly articulated in the sessions, but the sessions always jarred something loose or stirred the pot–choose your preferred flavor of metaphor.

    I think for larger, untrained groups, Tony’s solution of having prepped ideas brought to the group to stimulate discussion is probably the best solution (although I’ll bet nasty folk stomp on baby ideas in that arena, too. I’ve seen it happen. Beware the focus group!)

    Wish I could have interned or worked at IDEO at some point in my career. I would love to have had a little rigorous scientific training applied to my creative process.

  19. I was just thinking about this topic the other day and blogged on it wondering why the heck are people so fired up about brainstormings?

    I agree that there are dynamics of free flowing exchange at creative companies, but the most companies DON’T have it and people haven’t thought about the problem and aren’t physically or mentally prepared to brainstorm.

    There are physiological undercurrents to successful idea generation (working on an audio series now that discusses just this topic!) and throwing people into a room isn’t the best way.

    Bottom line: we want ALL our people to contribute in some way to idea generation and our creative cultures. Traditional team brainstorming isn’t the way to do this.

    There are other ways of generating tons of ideas, cross-pollinating and generating more ideas that do not require 8 hours in a room together. Using these techniques I’ve led the generation of useful multiple TEAM mined (but not one-time-brainstormed) patents in a shorter time (less that 2 hours), in an already patent saturated landscape by purposely avoiding team brainstormings.

  20. I tend to agree with the folks who have said that the effectiveness might depend on the group doing the brainstorming.

    I’ve done this numerous times with corporate managers who are forced into some kind of workshop that they don’t want to be at. Those brainstorming sessions are a disaster and a total waste of time.

    I also think that at those types of sessions people tend to say what they think the leader of the workshop wants them to say.

    On the other hand I’ve had great brainstorming sessions with teams that were very energized about the meeting or workshop and were truly interested in coming up with creative ideas.

  21. Like others have said: It depends on the people doing it and the circumstances. Brainstorming is a tool like any other, and if it’s applied in a situation where it doesn’t fit, it will create bad results. Putting in a new window using a hammer is going to suck, but that doesn’t mean that hammers are bad.

    Personally, I have had great success with brainstorming as a way of idea development. Mainly on smaller projects and only at the early stages. Under those conditions, brainstorming is an awesome tool. In my experience though, corporate pen pushers aren’t very good at it. They should leave creative methods to creative people.

    To be honest, it sounds to me like most of these people are upset that brainstorming isn’t an end-all problem solver. Guess what: Nothing is, except hard work and an open mind. Maybe they need a little more of the latter.

  22. I think that one positive aspect of brainstorming (as someone how doesn’t really like them) is morale. I think it’s good to give everyone a chance to give their ideas even if the chances of them being used are not very high. But then again I work in church work, so morale, especially of volunteers, is especially important.

  23. I think Rasmus nailed it with, “In my experience though, corporate pen pushers aren’t very good at it.” Let the creatives do the creative work, that’s what we’re getting paid for.
    I think my general dislike of brainstorms is that most of them are set up to be inclusive of everyone at the earliest stages of idea creation, and a lot of those people shouldn’t really be there, not because they’re not creative, but because they’re not creative when put on the spot in front of an audience.

  24. Brainstorming can work exceedingly well in some situations, but I do find it frustrating when some participant don’t participate.

    With work I do with clients brainstorming works well to ensure all areas of a project are thought of; also, when working on projects I mindmap it.

    I had heard that in some parts of the UK the use of the term Brainstorming was seen as being not PC; and a more PC term “Thought Showers” was being encouraged.

    If a brainstorming session is being facilitated well it can be valuable. If it’s not well facilitated and the facilitator has to constantly throw ideas into the mix then the session is not truly beneficial.

    As other have said participants need to be ‘energised’ and also I would add that there needs to be buy-in to the session from all participants.

  25. @rasmus and tony and a few others,

    Don’t you think there’s a problem with:

    ” Let the creatives do the creative work, that’s what we’re getting paid for.” and

    ” a lot of those people shouldn’t really be there, not because they’re not creative, but because they’re not creative when put on the spot in front of an audience.” ?

    1. I’m paying EVERYONE to be creative! Humans are creative by nature, if they weren’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I want all of my team to be a rockin’ innovative powerhouse and that means they need to be firing on all cylinders as humans. This leads to:
    2. We are content with losing creative input because someone can’t deal effectively with the social pressures of brainstorming?!? !

    I really can’t believe people are willing to kick creative input/people to the side?!?

    There are ways of generating ideas outside of formal brainstorms that are AS effective and I would argue moreso (as I’ve used them) and so would the humungous body of scientific research which actually addresses these other techniques.

    • Do you really want everybody to be creative? Don’t you need some people just to do a certain function as efficiently and effectively as possible? Maybe not all jobs require creativity.

  26. I think successul brainstorming is also influenced by the leader or facilitator of the effort. If the leader truly puts his/her ago aside and keeps it flowing, yet structured around some goals including time management, it can often be successful. Ideally the facilitator should be a known person to everyone in the room who is respected and respectful and has that ability to draw ideas out of those passive people who often have the best ideas.

  27. @Michael

    I don’t disagree that everyone is creative, and that their input is valid. However, we don’t hold big meetings to discuss how we’re going to do the accounting whenever something new comes up where everyone is invited to pitch new ideas, generally we let the accountants handle it because that’s what they’re good at. This isn’t by any means a claim that people can only do what they’re hired to do, but I don’t think the brainstorm as run in most organizations is the way to bring in outside input to the creative process. It tends to lead to the dreaded “creativity by committee” as the creative process morphs into a democracy, which it is surely not in its most natural state.

    As I said in my first comment, I think if you’re going to bring everyone together on something the best strategy is to give them time to work on it solo or in small groups first, and then convene the large group of prepared participants. It gives everyone a chance to really think about the problem at hand and brainstorm at a pace they’re comfortable with (instead of trying to keep up with a large group, a lot of people can’t be creative on command.) The standard model for brainstorms in most companies (esp. companies who aren’t creative agencies) is to bring a group of people into a room cold and hope that something brilliant comes of the interaction, which I believe is a waste of time. If you need to continually come up with ideas on the spot then you need a better project manager on staff.

    So I totally agree with you that there are other methods to bring ideas in. I guess my comment should have been “Let the creatives do the creativity on the spot (if necessary), that’s what they’re getting paid for.”

  28. For me,

    Brainstorming firstly is a TOOL, just like any other tool known to man, its usefulness rests on its capacity to achieve the following two uses;

    1. To perform a partcular task -mission (generate “quality” not “quantity” ideas)

    2. To satisfy a particular need -purpose (inspire creative thinking)

    Secondly, the efficiency of any tool depends on two factors;

    1. The competence of the user (skill, experience, knowledge etc. of the participants)

    2. The parameters surrounding the tool (external working condition/environment)

    Since the task and objective of brainstorming is to generate “quality” and not “quantity” ideas it stops being useful when it doesnt fulfill this mission.

    Also, it stops being useful when it fails to inspire people’s creative thinking ability since that is the ‘why’ -purpose- of a brainstorming section.

    However, when any of these situations occur, in diagnosing the cause of the problem, like is typical of most problems, there is both the human side and also the contextual side. To arrive at a clear result, one must examine both the ‘user’ (human side) as well as the ‘context’ (the reality of the situation) because how well a tool functions depends on both.

    Hence, for brainstorming section to work, I think we must take into consideration the competence of the participants, as well as other external parameters surrounding the brainstorming section other than the participants.

    In summary, brainstorming itself cannot work in isolation, it depends largely on other factors without which it cannot effectively and efficiently function. All these other factors must all be rightly aligned in order for the tool – brainstorming to work!

    Just my opinion. 🙂

  29. I facilitate a lot of brainstorms, especially for people who don’t self-identify as “creatives”. The #1 tip I have is to let people know that the immediate next step will be to critique, eliminate, or otherwise organize the ideas that are generated. This helps them both get over their fears of suggesting “dumb stuff” and not criticize other folks’ “dumb stuff”.

    In fact, I don’t think of brainstorming as just the idea generation part. There has to be both a “divergent” and “convergent” phase, with an explicit shift from one to the other. The worst brainstorms I’ve experienced are caused by people “converging” before the shift (i.e. criticizing) and “diverging” after the shift (i.e. last minute “great ideas” that aren’t so great and mainly just derail the project).

  30. Thinking brainstorming? think again

  31. back @Tony,

    Now we’re talkin’!!! 🙂

  32. I am sure that these academics who have looked into the (in)efficiencies of brainstorming offered up an alternative for creative people to produce truly ground-breaking ideas aside from traditional brainstorming methods, and it’s a shame those weren’t presented along with the detractors’ arguments against.

    I have seen brainstorming sessions that have created miraculous results, and others that have broken down instantaneously. The difference is structure, which a lot of people began intimating in both the quotes in the article and the comments below. IDEO, for instance, has turned brainstorming into a science, and one that has been extraordinarily successful and lucrative for their business. No one is going to tell them “brainstorming doesn’t work.”

    Design academia and courses are just now starting to catch on, with Stanford only having recently built their program thanks to David Kelley of IDEO and other programs in the UK gaining steam. I had the pleasure of taking a course in this new discipline, and I believe that its implementation is the only way corporate entities can expect to continue to innovate. Procter & Gamble is a testament to this belief.

    “Brainstorming” may not be the answer. But a culture that encourages new ideas, and the offspring of those and others’ ideas is what keeps a company thinking fresh. As academics continue to develop theories on best implementation of creative process, it is in EVERY company’s best interest to pick processes that are a good fit for their enterprise, and practice them. Routinely. It is not only the way to innovate, but will eventually be the only way to survive without relying on pure luck.

  33. I was once an enthusiastic brainstormer, but am now heartily disillusioned with them – the most that ever seems to come out of them is a storm of sticky notes and a pile of biscuit crumbs, that someone else (that’ll be me) has to clear up.

    I think the main problem is that a brainstorm is often called by someone who doesn’t want to have to think about a problem, or who is abdicating responsibility for having ideas. If the brainstormed solution works they can take the credit, but if not, they can blame the group.

    Much more can be achieved by two or three people sitting down for 30 minutes to discuss an idea than by getting ten uncommitted people in a room for two (expensive) hours

    There is often the sense that ideas are only valid if they are born in a brainstorm, which is absurd. Creative people have ideas all the time, sparked by whatever they’re reading, watching, doing, chatting about. Brainstorming should happen organically and as necessary – by turning around in your chair to bounce something off a colleague, for instance – rather than being corralled into a set two hours a week.

    Unfortunately, in some organizations, two hours of forced brainstorming a week is seen as a better use of time than ongoing informal, constructive and collaborative conversations with colleagues. Creative types often feel constrained by the formality of a set session – telling them they can only have ideas at certain times is a guaranteed way to demotivate them.

    Formal, organised brainstorming, does have its uses: it reassures senior people that creativity is being encouraged, it’s good for making people feel involved and can help junior members of the team to learn and practice creative thinking techniques. But in a truly creative environment, these things should be happening anyway.

  34. Brainstorming succeeds when there is a clear end goal in mind. Weirdly, the more constraints on the brainstorming, the better the outcome.

    Three days ago, I took part in a disastrous brainstorming session, because the objective was too loose.

    The session was focused on creating a new product line. When I asked, ‘What will success look like?’ the response was, ‘Anything that generated revenue this quarter.’

    That’s simply too broad. If we were given more parameters, such as:

    – product needs to reinforce our brand image
    – product needs to appeal to existing customer base
    – X is the budget we have to work with
    – product must include x,y and z components
    – etc.

    Then, we might have accomplished something. As it was, it was simply an enormous amount of wasted time.

  35. I think Brainstorming is such a linear activity and NOT at all how the brain really works.
    What does work is mindmapping. It takes the way your brain naturally works and I’ve used it a great many times successfully to resolve a problem. But don’t be fooled by people who say they know how to mindmap properly. Read up on some work by Tony Buzan and see how it is done. He did some great work with Boeing.
    I like the idea Tony (#17) had about starting in pairs or small groups and bringing ideas to a larger group meeting.

  36. Learn more about IDEO’s approach from the ABC Nightline programme “The Deep Dive” where they redesign the shopping trolley.

    The repeated brainstorm-prototype-feedback process helps the designers gather as much insight as they can rather than simply generating ideas.

    As timshel points out, a clear goal and appropriate constraints force the designers to think creatively about specific problems. But they are designers experienced in the technique, not a bunch of middle managers thrown together at an off-site location to “be creative” for a day.

  37. I’ve definitely seen brainstorming bog down progress of a project.

    “Okay, so we’re ready to…?”

    “Oh! Hang on! Just had a great idea; let’s brainstorm this!”

    Alright, so we do. Then…

    “Okay, so we’re ready to…?”

    “Oh! Hang on! Just had a great idea; let’s brainstorm this!”

    And yet again…

    “Okay, so we’re ready to…?”

    “Oh! Hang on! Just had a great idea; let’s brainstorm this!”

    Eventually, someone has to stop brainstorming, pull on the entrepreneur pants and say, “Look, crikey, we have a project to do. You, do this. You, do that. You, do this. I’ll do this. Alright. Everyone good? Everyone has something to do? Go.”

    For the love of Pete.

  38. You omitted “piggybacking”. This is how, for example, people who are reluctant to come up with wacky ideas in front of their peers can contribute — by piggybacking off someone else’s creative idea.

  39. I would agree that brainstorming can be an embarrassing and crinch worthy experience and that it is very rarely managed successfully.

    It works a lot better when you have a facilitator who knows what they are doing.

    Two tips I have found that increase overall output from the session:

    1) As you suggest, small group it first, in ones or twos and then have those smaller groups bounce off each other, sparking off ideas and eliminating duplication before bringing the whole group back together.

    2) It helps massively if you can create some simple structure around which people can improvise… creativity works best with some structure not with no structure.

  40. This calls for a post in response. 🙂

  41. I think one can’t underestimate the teambuilding aspects of a well-run (!) brainstorming session. Buy in is easier afterwards, and cooperation is increased, as the ideas fly out and are later tempered and refined into plans.

    So, where in these studies do they quantify and evaluate *that*? It’s intangible but invaluable.

  42. Wow thanks everyone, fantastic discussion. And you should check out each others’ sites, I’ve been browsing and there are some very talented people contributing to this thread.

    @ Josh Clauss — I touched on two of the improvements suggested by the academics, namely introducing critical filters and getting people to develop ideas individually before meeting together as a group. Others suggested improvements include brainwriting, in which people write their ideas down on a single sheet or board, to avoid production blocking when people have to wait their turn.

    @ timshel — I know what you mean, we’re sold on the idea of creative constraints round here!

    @ Richard Hare — I’ve read about that IDEO documentary, would love to see it.

    @ Mark Dykeman — Nice post!

  43. What usually works best for me (with a group, or individually) is to formally brainstorm only if/when I feel stuck. I find that there are times when I’m “hooked in” and the creativity flows. Other times, not so much.

    What helps me every bit as much as brainstorming when “stuck” is to work on something else for awhile, to move around or to go outside (even just for a second–cleans out the cobwebs).

    By the way, along the line of some lateral (cyber) action, I’m playing an interview game on my blog. If you have a website or blog, (any/all of you talented people who commented, and of course, Mark), you can play too!

  44. I think it only needs to be noted that every activity or practice that has value can be done in such a way that it’s useless or counterproductive. And that most activities and practices that have value require the participants to do things well and to be engaged and usually to be smart and to have practiced the skills.

    Brainstorming is like most anything else, then – valuable if done correctly by people who know how to do it, are smart, and skilled. Useless in most other cases. Just like playing the piano.

  45. I believe that Brainstorming is one of the most overused and undervalued tools in business. It is incorrectly overused as it is certainly not the first step in the creative process but quite often it is the only one. So you have a group without proper leadership working possibly on the wrong problem and the result is that people blame the tool instead of the process.

    Brainstorming is undervalued for all of the above reasons and also because it is not being combined with other techniques that can be done in solitary or group settings. Brain Writing or techniques to enhance idea generation like pictures and Forced Connections and Scamper help to generate more innovative ideas.

    Brainstorming is really a technique for collecting ideas, sorting those ideas and prioritizing the best ideas. It is best when it is used with sticky notes or computerized idea capturing software. Used in conjunction with the vast variety of creative idea generating tools available, it offers the framework to make the idea generation process manageable and useable.

  46. I’m on the side of the “complete waste of timers”. For me it is no more than a lazy hide-behind. A veneer of activity that masks a reality of fundamental cluelessness

  47. @Shaun

    Can I quote you??! I LOOVE the last sentence!

  48. What would happen if: a mix between people coming up with ideas on their own, and then having a group brainstorming session (or mini conference) where people can react to and/or extend the original ideas in their own ways. Then, at that point, if people come up with more ideas, there could be another “mini conference.” Rather than having a short brainstorming session over 10/15/20 minutes, this process would give people personal and group time to generate ideas over the course of several days; giving them time to even “sleep on it.” Allot of processing and organizing occurs in the brain while the body rests during sleep.

  49. @Francis I primarily teach this method and the results have been amazing. More quality ideas in less group time. When people build off each other’s ideas it results in exponential quantities of ideas.
    The key is priming peole propperly for their “homework”. Also, people need to be disciplined enough to create the ideas on their own.

  50. I agree with your comments on brainstorming. Similarly, I have written a blog post on the concept of “dialogue” as presented by Edgar H. Schein that also offers a refinement – no a careful blast – on the concept of brainstorming. I find Dr. Schein to be one of my favorite authors in organizational development and organizational psychology. My firm’s practice is helped greatly by his perspectives. Yours is also quite valuable.

    I agree with the statements of the linearity of brainstorming.

    The following link to my blog is provided for your review. I have also provided references to articles I read regarding on the subject of effective group meetings.

  51. Rich Rosen says:

    I believe that the main obstacle to brainstorming is that there is usually too many “like-thinking” people in the group.

    Increase the scope, variety, and quantity of the participants. More productive results will likely appear.
    see “The Wisdom of Crowds”

  52. I’ve spent several years as an assistant to several bosses from industries that range from ones involved in sales and management to ones that require creativity. I’ve been to ‘brainstorming’ with the best and unfortunately the worst. Reading the article about the pro’s and con’s, I just had to put my thoughts in. “Brainstorming” so to speak should involve key people who are likely to have an idea of the subject, people who have the initiative to involve themselves in the company (like a department head whose area is affected even by the fringes with a company problem) or a those who have are capable to share their thoughts.
    Brainstorming must involve expressive and not the yes-men…nothing brought to the table by 40% of the “brainstormees” make the meeting equivalent to an extended coffee break with the big bosses and free donuts.

  53. I have to agree that brainstorming is not the best thing since sliced bread.

    As a Project Manager, I find this process to be, most of the times, a complete waste of time: You will quite often listen to crazy ideas discussed at length during a brainstorming session. You can’t even complain, because, this is just a brainstorming session.

    Sometimes, for its credit, a brainstorming session can be fruitful, if and only if the people present at the brainstorming session are logical, intelligent, and experienced.

  54. Brainstorming can be effective it is part of a process, and not viewed as a singular isolated event.

    By this I mean that there has to be some type of “focus” prior to the brainstorming to make sure it addresses the right problem. This helps keep the ideation on track. Following the brainstorming is the evaluation and the same people need to be involved. This helps train the participants to think of future ideas within the evaluation criteria – thereby improving the quality and effectiveness of future sessions.

    Those that use brainstorming regularly and embed it in their working practices become effective at it, and find it valuable. Those who view it as a chore or an ineffective practice end up making it so.

  55. Mine is just opinion, but I think brainstorming is a complete and utter waste of time. A lot of clutter comes up which clogs the progression of useful actionable ideas. To me it’s like trying to get somewhere by walking around in circles – you will get there eventually there are just many better ways to do it.

    Brainstorming is something you do when you haven’t a clue how to approach the problem and you want to waste some time until you get a clue, but it doesn’t really help you get a clue faster. You might as well take a nap and hope to wake up suddenly with a eureka, when you’re napping your brain has a chance to work in peace without brainstorm debris, or better yet as a colleague for a clue or work on another problem you have a clue about.

    Brainstorming is for the clueless.

  56. I am not a fan of brainstorming. As mentioned in the post and responses above, brainstorming has several cons.

    During my years in the corporate world, I realized that coming up with brilliant ideas and solutions is easy. Sometimes you just need to think outside the box. Sometimes the answer is “right there in front of your nose”.

    There is no need to group people up and get them to brainstorm. Ownership of an idea gets blurry in brainstorming, and this makes other people “lazy” or unmotivated to come up with brilliant ideas and solutions.

  57. Gavin Lawrence says:

    I am not sure where brainstorming sessions change to workshops or whether there is any difference. I am into risk workshops and risk interviews and I believe that the results of 1 to 1 interviews are just as good as workshops.
    Here are a number of reasons why workshops can fail:-

    Workshop are time expensive for the ten or twelve participants. A specialist experienced facilitator is normally used who will also have a note taker.

    If a facilitator is sourced externally, he/she should submit appropriate handling methodologies for dealing with these issues. In view of the paucity of studies on knowledge elicitation the methodology used should be fully documented to allow retrospective evaluation of the effectiveness and accuracy of different techniques.

    a) Participants believe that their view is “out on a limb” from the rest of the group.
    b) Participants may believe that they will be subject to ridicule for expressing an alternative view.
    c) Participants may think that others have already said “it”, or thought about it because it seemed so obvious, and that the idea must have been rejected for “good” reasons.
    d) They may have “trading agreements” with the others in the group that would be broken if they expressed a view that opposes that of their trading partners – to do so would have consequences for support on other issues.
    e) To dissent from the view of the group may put team cohesiveness at risk – threatening established order.
    f) It damages the amity of the team.
    g) Participants may be frightened of reprisals for expressing a particular view that is thought to be counter to the prevailing view of those in power.
    h) May demonstrate weaknesses or knowledge/experience etc., deficiencies of the participant.
    i) Drawing on research in cognitive sciences on pattern recognition and visual perception, the practice of plotting, on a white-board, of probability (y-axis) and £-impact – log scaled (x-axis) may influence the risk assessments vis a vis relative positioning and density of the plot points for reasons such as symmetry and balance.
    j) Major infrastructure cost over-runs are regularly in the range of 25 – 600%, Flyvberg identifies over-optimism as the single greatest because of over-estimation; this may flow from the points listed above.
    k) Group assessments tend to give extreme values greater credence i.e. approaching 0 or 1.
    l) Social norms of the group can discourage the extent to which the thinking of each of individuals in the group is used in the group decision making.
    m) Existing social processes and social relationships encourage only shallow thinking to surface.
    n) Group decision making often results in higher risk decisions being taken because of the shared responsibility and hence, less liability, than that of the individual decision maker.
    o) There is research to indicate that workshops and group brain-storming sessions do not produce any more creative thinking or better results than that produced by the individuals alone.
    p) Participant selection is a key issue to be explored further in the context of management v. Front-line executive. Also how expert are the experts?
    q) Over-emphasis placed on the value and out-put of workshops by managers and decision makers.
    r) Risk consultants over-emphasise the value of risk workshops because they generate revenue from running them.
    s) Attendees of risk workshops are keen to achieve a consensus, right or wrong, in order to get back to work that they feel is more important i.e. risk workshops are perceived time wasting etc…

  58. I’m for anything that stimulates the mind and encourages different perspectives. Saying that brainstorming is bad is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Dogma and bureaucracy screw anything up.

  59. I used to work in the Public Sector, not exactly known for its free-thinking creativity and you could bet that the facilitator of the brainstorming session was the most unimaginative person in the organisation!

    From the brainstorming session, ‘ideas’ were passed up to various committees and were either deemed inappropriate for the organisation’s mission, or adopted but so burdened by bureaucracy that all the creative energy of the idea was sucked out of it.

    Brainstorming can work only if the environment is a creative one and allows for lateral thinking!

  60. My wife and i have been absolutely more than happy Emmanuel could round up his inquiry while using the ideas he had in your web pages. It is now and again perplexing to simply find yourself freely giving tactics which usually people may have been selling. And we discover we’ve got the writer to thank for this. The most important illustrations you made, the straightforward blog navigation, the relationships you help to create – it is most fantastic, and it’s really assisting our son in addition to the family recognize that the issue is excellent, which is seriously serious. Thank you for the whole thing!

  61. I’m a huge fan of brainstorming. That being said I do need to put some remarks…

    Critics do miss some important points there. First and foremost, brainstorming won’t work if it is forced. You simply can’t herd people into a room and tell them to do it. Especially a large number of people. It simply won’t work that way.

    Also, if somebody is firm against it it will take down the whole group. People who are reluctant can be moved into it by session leader… just explain them how it works and let them be. Let the group start throwing ideas around and let them join in spontaneously. Good brainstorming is lots of fun, it’s more like chatting with friends in the pub than solving the problem in the office. So if three people are doing it, fourth will catch up soon enough.

    Taking turns is absolutely no-no. Putting somebody in the spotlight and saying “what do you think” is an idea killer. So is using the word “rules”. There are rules of brainstorming, but it is much better not to use the word.

    Brainstorming is great because it makes people not forcing them on the solution as much as just being the part of the process. It gets them in the flow. My personal feeling is that both parts of the brain are activated.

    What I found as an added value to brainstorming, beside the ideas generation, is that it forms and solidifies the group and tends to build relationships that stays long after the session ended. Much like some other rituals it makes people connect and learn about each other (how they think, how they feel…). It gives them a shared experience. Also, he feeling that one can speak freely and throw something around without being judged usually stays during the execution stage. That freedom is priceless.