Brainstorming is an experience every professional has at some point during his or her career. It can feel like a waste of time with a side of bagels and coffee dominated by one or two boisterous individuals sucking up all the air. Experiences like this leave reasonable participants wondering if their time could have been better spent elsewhere and foster a ‘why bother’ attitude. This raises the question—why is brainstorming such a prevalent form of idea creation?
It can be effective. The modern form of brainstorming has been around for over seven decades, but it’s derived from an idiom that predates the fifteenth century—two heads are better than one. Theoretically more people working together yields better solutions than solitary individuals.
Alex Osborn introduced brainstorming to the public in 1939 and promoted it as a method for coming up with novel ideas. The definition, courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Management: “Brainstorming is the process of generating large numbers of ideas, with an eye to solving a specific problem or generating new ideas for a business. Many businesses use brainstorming as a creative and problem-solving tool because this process allows for many ideas to be generated quickly, making it potentially easier to focus on a few good ideas that can be developed further.” (2012, p. 6). It is a tool for creative decision-making that leverages the synergy of a group to create new solutions by building upon other’s ideas.
Determined to Brainstorm
If an organization is determined to gather employees together to tackle a tough problem, there are steps it can take to maximize the effort of its employees.
Obey the Four principles
- Suspend judgment. Idea evaluations belong to a later step in the process.
- Parameter-free. There should be no parameters placed on the alternatives and solutions proposed.
- Quantity driven. The ultimate goal is to amass as many solutions as the group can produce in the allotted time.
- Build on Suggestions. Participants should be encouraged to build on or modify ideas proposed by others.
In additions to the principles, the Interactive Design Foundation suggests setting a time limit and starting with a defined problem statement to keep the group on task. Including some variety of visuals will also help (e.g., post-its or different color markers) keep the process flowing. Make sure all ideas are recorded preferably by an individual not participating.
Does Brainstorming Really Work?
Research doesn’t back brainstorming as an effective form of ideation, “the evidence strongly suggests that brainstorming is not effective, at least at generating good ideas. (It can still function as a morale booster.) Study after study has shown that groups engaging in brainstorming come up with fewer good ideas than people working by themselves.” (Lehrer, 2012). In the research, the discrepancy is called a production loss.
The following problems can reduce the effectiveness of face-to-face brainstorming:
- Production blocking – only one participant can speak at a time, creating an ideas logjam. Participants can forget their ideas while waiting to speak. It also can lower participant motivation.
- Evaluation apprehension—even though brainstorming is supposed to be judgment-free, participants can self-censor their ideas because they’re concerned how others will judge their contribution.
- Groupthink or idea conformity—Nothing dulls the effectiveness of brainstorming like idea conformity.
- Social loafing—participants putting in less effort because they’re not alone.
Brainstorming may get a bad rap because it’s easy for a session to derail, coupled with the fact that it is difficult to encapsulate and reproduce the creative process. The hidden benefit for creativity is the building off others’ ideas to reach a new plane of creativity. There’s also an incubation factor to keep in mind when weighing the value of brainstorming. It can take time and reflection on the part of individuals after the session to realize the full benefit of brainstorming, to build upon the foundation established in the session in new creative ways.
Brainwriting Could be a Solution
If getting off topic is a concern, brainwriting has a record of success. In a brainwriting session, participants individually write down their ideas and share them with the group in a round-robin style by passing their ideas to the person next to them, and the next person builds on the ideas of the first. The brainwriting process is completed silently without interference.
Brainwriting has evidence to support its effectiveness. “Paul Paulus and Huei-Chuan Yang found that this procedure increased the number of ideas generated by groups by 40% compared to nominal groups of participants who wrote ideas alone. Even more striking, when group participants continued writing ideas in a subsequent solitary session, the group brainstorming experience led to 89% more ideas than the nominal experience.” (Paulus, 2010).
Another suggestion for boosting the session is starting it off by having participants write down the ideas they have on the topic or problem before the discussion is opened. This is commonly called a brain dump and is a valuable ideation technique in its own right.
It’s common for brainstorming to feel like an uncomfortable waste of time but remember the benefits aren’t immediately realized—this is just a stop in the journey of creativity, not the destination. To speed up the journey, try incorporating writing and visuals in some fashion. With commitment and know-how, brainstorming can be as effective as originally advertised.
Brainstorming. (2010). In J. M. Levine, & M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Encyclopedia of group processes & intergroup relations (pp. 59-63). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/apps/doc/CX3202000031/GVRL?u=a13qu&sid=GVRL&xid=b0c107bc
Brainstorming. (2012). In S. D. Hill (Ed.), Encyclopedia of management (7th ed. ed., pp. 63-67). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/apps/doc/CX4016600033/GVRL?u=a13qu&sid=GVRL&xid=4a07bf10
Dam, R., & Siang, T. (2018). Learn how to use the best ideation methods: Brainstorming, braindumping, brainwriting, and brainwalking. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/learn-how-to-use-the-best-ideation-methods-brainstorming-braindumping-brainwriting-and-brainwalking
Lehrer, J. (2012, Apr 22). Brainstorming. The Washington Post Retrieved from http://libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/docview/1008678837?accountid=13381