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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:
- Generate as many ideas as possible – the more ideas you come up with, the better chance you have of coming up with good ones.
- Don’t criticise – it will dampen peoples enthusiasm and kill their creativity.
- 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.
- 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.
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.