The Death of Brainstorming?

An article by Susan Cain appearing in the NY Times a few weeks ago argued that brainstorming is counterproductive, a poor way to stimulate creativity.

While the arguments are persuasive, they are also flawed. They appear to proceed from the assumption that brainstorming is a relatively simple process that can be done by any group at any time. In fact, effective brainstorming is surprisingly difficult, and problems with team cohesion, decision making, and leadership can easily turn it into an unpleasant time-waster. Teams that haven’t developed good conflict management and debate skills are also unlikely to brainstorm effectively. Rather than producing good ideas, they are likely to experience exactly the sorts of groupthink that Cain argues is likely to occur.

Fundamentally, though, Cain’s article confounds several problems and concludes, therefore, that brainstorming doesn’t work. So let’s look at how to make it work:

Don’t take on too much in one day. 3-4 topics are about it, probably less. In general, the more important the topic, the more that should be your focus. Spending several days on one large topic is often seen as a “waste” of time, but, done correctly, is actually the most likely way to get useful results.

Give yourself lots of time and take short breaks every 60-90 minutes. Take a long lunch break and get out of the office. Brainstorming is surprisingly draining, so taking regular breaks gives people a chance to refresh their perspective and keep the creative juices flowing. Once people start getting tired, the quality of ideas and effective debate decline rapidly.

Don’t try to cram more work into the day: after 4-6 hours of serious brainstorming, people are drained. If they know they have to go back to work afterward, they’ll hold back during the brainstorming, or do low quality work because they’re tired. Go out to dinner or something afterward and call it a success.

Separate idea generation from idea evaluation. Evaluating ideas as they are presented only invites argument and defensiveness. Instead, spend half your time collecting ideas, no matter how outrageous. Some people brainstorm very effectively by being silly or cracking jokes. Let it flow. I’ve found that the craziest ideas often provide the spark for the best solutions. After you’ve collected enough ideas, then take a break, or even wait until the next day, and then evaluate them. A little distance gives wonderful perspective.

Assign someone to collect ideas; don’t rely on memory. Use multiple whiteboards, an easel with a giant pad of paper, your favorite technology, etc. It can often help to bring in an outside facilitator who has no emotional connection to any outcome. This also helps prevent the appearance of bias or of having someone emotionally connected to a particular outcome attempting to influence the result.

Work in a large, brightly lit space. Institutional gray only dampens creativity. Yes, physical environment matters. A change of venue, away from the office, can work wonders.

If you find your team slipping into a groupthink mentality or unable to agree on a course of action, that’s not a problem with brainstorming. That’s a problem with your debate and decision making process. Bring in someone who can help you fix it, or your brainstorming efforts are going to be a waste of time (in addition, problems with debate and decision making are likely to be reducing your productivity in other areas as well!).

Brainstorming is a powerful tool, if you use it correctly.

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