Brainstorming: method or madness?

Brainstorming is a waste of time, right?

I have just read several articles on why group brainstorming was a waste of time or a poor solution for problem solving or a way to devolve to the mushy middle.

Detractors say that brainstorming is a terrible problem solving tool. It’s unfocused, meandering and produces poor outcomes. Brainstorming was never designed to be  a problem solving tool. A brainstorm was intended to be an idea generation tool, period! It is a way to expand the range of options for additional exploration, discovery or development. It is true – it is a terrible problem solver and if someone invites you to a brainstorm to problem solve, tell them you’ve had a better offer.

Group brainstorms generate the same number of ideas as an individual brainstorm – so why waste time on group brainstorms. It’s true. A free form brainstorm without benefit of facilitation produces meh results.

Group brainstorms are chaotic, unfocused and full of silly, unproductive ideas. Brainstorms can be excruciating for introverts – free form, vocal, out loud and often unpredictable. Extraverts may love the group-iness of it all and be so utterly distracted by the commotion that they can’t come up with unique thoughts.

There are always critics who can’t censor their thoughts in a brainstorm and stifle creativity, thereby undermining the value of a brainstorm. Another nail in the brainstorm coffin. Don’t get me started on the social loafers, who assume that others will contribute, so don’t put much effort into the event. And worse, there are those, that just by showing up, inhibit creativity (e.g a senior leader).

Is brainstorming the great ‘organizational placebo‘?

In my experience, the answer is no.

A well designed brainstorm delivers benefits.

Some of the benefits of brainstorming include the fact that an individual is generally not able to represent a range of diverse perspectives. A group brainstorm presents an opportunity to pull diverse perspectives into a room to generate a set of ideas that wouldn’t necessarily come up from an individual with a single perspective.

Research shows that facilitated brainstorming groups match the performance of individuals working on their own.They generate more, high quality ideas.

A well designed brainstorm allows every individual equal opportunity to contribute, it creates space for every idea and taps into diversity in the room.

A good brainstorm offers a collaborative experience which brings people together and helps them feel like they are part of a process. This has significant value.

BUT – certain conditions must be met for a good brainstorm.

A good brainstorm doesn’t typically, magically happen. Generally some thoughtful attention to process is needed. Here’s what I have learned really matters.

Create a clear, focused question for participants to respond to.

  • As an example: What new programs could our community association offer that would interest our residents? 
  • Related article:  The power of a problem statement

Give participants 2 or 3 minutes of individual, silent time to think; ask them to write their ideas on a piece of paper in front of them. 

  • This is really important. Introverts and extraverts will benefit from this silent reflection as it gives time to consider perspectives and marshall thoughts.

Once individuals have written their ideas down, ask them to select their best 3 – 5 ideas and write each, individual idea on a sticky note. 

  • This ensures that every person’s ideas are collected; it gives an opportunity for everyone to contribute and ensures that every person’s ideas are visible.

Collect the ideas, read each one aloud and put it on a wall/whiteboard. 

  • This ensures every idea is heard. All perspectives are present and accounted for.
  • Only allow questions of clarification. Do not critique the ideas at this point.

Only then should you begin a discussion about the brain storm and pursue your intended outcome – which will likely include some type of convergent thinking. 

My approach draws from a method that is documented in the Technology of Participation and taught by ICA Associates. It is time tested, well worn and highly effective.  The most important part of its effectiveness is the capacity to allow individual thought and perspective to surface and new insights to emerge; one of the major criticisms of the mosh-pit approach to brainstorming.

There are many brainstorm tools and approaches.  Here are a few:

The real trick is what you do next with the ideas.

Related article: Too much left brain.