Brainstorming can be an effective technique for creative problem solving when used properly. However it’s not the best approach for all ideation attempts, and can be ineffective without understanding the limitations and challenges associated with brainstorming.

In this post, we’ll help you understand:

  • The origin of brainstorming
  • Brainstorming process and theory
  • Facilitating brainstorming and different approaches to solicit ideas
  • Criticisms of brainstorming
  • Two best practices to get the most out of your brainstorming

The Origin of Brainstorming

In the 1940’s and 50’s, BBDO was considered the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. At the time, one of its executives, Alex Osborn, published a book called, Applied Imagination. In it, Osborn introduced “brainstorming” as one of the ways he was able to generate many creative ideas as part of a group.

This context is relevant because it illustrates that brainstorming, the now widely adopted technique, comes from experience and not research. In fact, most research shows that brainstorming (if you measure it by the sheer number of creative ideas) is less effective than a individuals coming up with ideas on their own. However, as we’ll cover later, brainstorming is better viewed as a technique for improving the quality (not quantity) of ideas. Furthermore, brainstorming can help a team bond and solve problems in an effective way that increases commitment to the most important step: implementing the idea so that real innovation can take place.

Brainstorming is better viewed as a technique for improving the quality (not quantity) of ideas.

So perhaps the biggest takeaway is: don’t rely on brainstorming to solicit ideas. An employee suggestion box can do that. Instead, view it as part of an idea management strategy and process within your organization. While an employee suggestion box focuses just on getting the ideas, an idea management program looks at the entire process from getting ideas, to building on and improving ideas, to evaluation and implementation, and measuring the impact of the innovation.

Brainstorming Process and Theory

Brainstorming is a technique for finding the best solution to a known problem or challenge. The core belief of brainstorming is that getting as many solutions as possible increases the chances of finding the best solution.

To begin, ideas are shared in an environment where criticism and debate are suspended. There are two reasons behind this. Firstly, brainstorming advocates believe that seeing or hearing others’ ideas, will prompt new ideas. Secondly, suspending criticism and debate makes it safe to share and prevents self-editing or withholding of ideas. In this stage, encourage wild ideas to add new perspectives to the pool of ideas.

The next stage is a process of combining and improving on ideas. It’s at this stage that criticism or debate should be introduced. For example: is it a feasible idea to implement. It’s likely that the discussion will create new ideas or combine ideas. It’s the introduction of constraints at this stage that may produce additional creativity and facilitate coming up with a better quality idea that everyone has buy-in for. Most of the criticism of brainstorming misses this key stage as an important part of the process. It’s here that the real value of brainstorming is realized.

Finally, don’t forget the last (and crucial step) of making a decision: assigning accountability to fully evaluate the implementation of the idea and the timelines for accomplishing it. The group may need to come together for additional meetings to work through new constraints that are identified. It’s obvious, but worth stating that you don’t have innovation unless your idea actually gets implemented.

Quick Summary of the Basic Brainstorming Process:

  1. Come up with as many ideas as possible
  2. To accomplish this, withhold criticism and welcome wild ideas
  3. Only when this is complete should you start combining and improving ideas
  4. Make a decision, assign accountability and an expectation to fully evaluate and report back to the group

Facilitating Brainstorming – Different Ways to Solicit Ideas

Individual Brainstorming

These processes or methods are useful when working on coming up with ideas as an individual. They are also useful in group brainstorming as a facilitator to help brainstorming members find angles to come up with new, novel ideas. We’re highly susceptible to context and prompting – so use more than one method to get a variety of ideas.

  • Map out the process – You know your starting point and what solving the problem looks like. Writing out the various steps involved in getting from point a to point b may open up new, more specific areas for focus ideation on.
  • Changing Your Attributes – You can try to imagine yourself as someone else and how they might solve the problem, or give yourself different characteristics that might help you solve the problem. How would I solve this if I was the owner of the company? How would I solve this if I was the customer?
  • Mind Mapping – Starting with the main goal or objective in the middle, connect ideas to this main objective and then look to the next level. If you look at those ideas what connections can you draw out from there?
  • Medici Effect Storming – The Medici Effect describes how ideas might not be obviously related, but if you can identify parallels, you may find things that are useful. One good example of this is Blue Ocean Strategy, where looking at similar, but not directly related industries, may offer ideas for business strategy that differentiates yourself from the competition.
  • Blind Writing – This is an attempt to let your mind wander to come up with ideas. The rule is to start and continue writing or doodling for a defined time (10 min or so). You must continue writing, even if it’s to say you have no ideas.
  • Reverse Storming – This approach takes the opposite stance to solving your problem. Instead of trying to come up with ideas to solve the problem, work on identifying ideas that would prevent you from solving the problem. Coming up with and understanding these ideas may help you figure out more original ways to solve your problem.
  • Question Brainstorming – This process involves brainstorming questions and not answers. Finding answers to the questions could be the work of future or subsequent sessions.

Group Brainstorming

These techniques are intended to help with pulling out better ideas via a collaborative process. By building on each other’s ideas, reviewing and voting, the end goal is to find a better idea. The other benefit is that group ideation helps build buy-in for later execution that will require participation. If people feel like they played a role in defining the problem and coming up with ideas, they’re more likely to feel invested in the ultimate solution.

  • Nominal Group Technique – Brainstorming members write down their ideas anonymously. The facilitator collects the ideas and then everyone votes on the ideas. The top ideas (most voted on) may go back to the group or subgroups for further ideation and a presentation back to the group.
  • Group Passing Technique – Here someone contributes an idea and then passes it to the next person in the group who adds their thoughts to the idea and then passes it to the next member of the group. Each person adds their thought to the original idea. Once this is complete the next person submits their individual idea and that is passed around for further thought. Once everyone has submitted an idea and everyone has provided a thought to each of these, you have a thorough list of ideas that have been elaborated on.
  • Team Idea Mapping Method – Similar to the nominal technique, brainstorming members write down their ideas. What differs is the process for evaluating ideas. Instead of voting, ideas are grouped into themes. This facilitates the group getting to a better shared understand of the problem and potential approaches. New ideas may also arise through association. Once all the ideas are mapped out, evaluation and voting of ideas can begin.
  • Directed Brainstorming – Similar to the group passing technique, this process start with someone writing down a single idea. That idea is passed onto the next individual. Instead of adding a thought to the idea, the request is to improve the idea. This technique is effective when the evaluation criteria for evaluating ideas are known in advance (ie cost, time, impact to resources, desired outcome).

Criticisms of Brainstorming

1. Brainstorming produces fewer ideas

There’s a good deal of research demonstrating that groups do not produce more ideas than individuals. There’s a good article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer titled “Group Think – The Brainstorming Myth”, which is a pretty comprehensive review of the criticisms of brainstorming.

As a quick summary, the first real test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was done at Yale University. Forty-eight individuals were divided into groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were told to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the same puzzles were given to 48 individuals working on their own. The solo students came up with about twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups. In addition, a panel of judges said their solutions were more “feasible” and “effective.” Since then, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion.

The solo students came up with about twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups.

Why is this? Understanding the following challenges are key to leveraging brainstorming effectively.

  • Blocking: Since only one person can contribute at a time, some people may forget their idea while they’re listening to someone else explain their idea or listening to the discussion that follows.
  • Collaborative Fixation: It’s a collaborative exercise so the tendency is for ideas to follow a similar pattern. The first idea generates further similar ideas and, therefore, people are influenced by the ideas that preceded theirs.
  • Evaluation Apprehension: Some people may not contribute as effectively because they fear judgment, or they may want to think further on their idea before contributing, which is counter to the spirit of brainstorming.
  • Free Riding / Accountability: When someone believes their idea will be judged individually, it was demonstrated that they worked harder on coming up with ideas than when they were told it would be pooled into a group of ideas and then evaluated. So if an individual feels like there’s a good amount of ideas coming from the group, they may feel like they’re less accountable for contributing.
  • Personality Characteristics: Extroverts outperform introverts in group sessions and this is where group think can become a big part of the issue. The loudest person dominates the conversation and others don’t feel comfortable asserting their own ideas.
  • Social Matching: Some people may alter their output to match that of others in the group.

2. Debate does not inhibit creativity, it increases it

Not criticizing or debating ideas is considered one of the most important elements for good brainstorming. However, studies have shown that debate and criticism doesn’t inhibit ideas but actually increases creativity. There’s some wisdom in the cliche that ingenuity is born out of necessity and that constraints are what produces break-out creativity. As an example, cash-strapped and resource poor, startups need to find innovative ways to create value, get work done and take their offerings to market.

There’s some wisdom in the cliche that ingenuity is born out of necessity and that constraints are what produces break-out creativity.

In 2003, Charlan Nemeth from the University of California, Berkeley took 265 students into teams of five. All the teams were asked to solve the same problem: how to reduce traffic congestion in San Francisco. One set of teams got the standard brainstorming framework to come up with ideas. The second team was told to come up with ideas with no further direction. The last group was told that research demonstrated debate and criticism were an important part of coming up with good ideas and were encouraged to debate.

The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams that debated performed best. On average, they generated nearly 25% more ideas. After the initial group ideation session, researchers asked each student individually if they had any more ideas about improving traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas while the debaters produced seven.

3. People aren’t very good at free association

Another criticism of brainstorming is that people aren’t actually very good at free association. Meaning, people do best when they build on ideas vs. having to come up with new novel ideas on their own. We’re all highly susceptible to suggestion and context. Something covered at length in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

People do best when they build on ideas vs. having to come up with new novel ideas on their own.

In another study conducted by Charlan Nemeth, she found that with no prompting creativity was very predictable, but when subjects were presented with an unusual context first, creativity was much improved. In the 1960s, two psychologists, David Palermo and James Jenkins, created a huge table of word associations based on the first thoughts that come to mind when people are asked to reflect on a particular word. They discovered that the majority of these associations were very predictable. For example, when people are asked to free-associate about the word “blue,” the most common first answer is “green,” followed by “sky” and “ocean.”

Nemeth’s experiment devised a way of getting beyond the first associations to more creative thoughts. In the experiment, pairs of subjects were shown colored slides and asked to identify the colors. In some pairs, one of the subjects was a lab assistant instructed to give the wrong answer. After a few minutes, the pairs were asked to free-associate about the colors they had seen. Those exposed to wrong answers came up with associations that were more creative. Now “blue” prompted “jazz” and “berry pie.”

So brainstorming is likely to produce more original ideas with context and other conflicting viewpoints than open, non-critical free-association, which may yield predictable responses.

4. Brainstorming in the real world (criticism of brainstorming criticisms)

If brainstorming doesn’t produce more ideas or more original ideas, is it worth it? It is. The issue with the studies is that they isolate one variable and focus on that. They don’t capture how creativity actually happens in the work environment. There, we pass seamlessly from individual to group work all the time. Like it or not, the trajectory for several decades is towards more creative work being done in teams vs. individuals. So it’s also a necessity to work on the optimal way to do it.

Rather than viewing research as a condemnation of brainstorming, it provides good insights into some of the pitfalls and suggests possible ways to improve on the process.

Asking the right question(s) gets much better answers.

How do you come up with the right question? One approach comes from an HBR article by Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford and Renée Dye, “Breakthrough Thinking From Inside the Box”. It points to the importance of leveraging the right context and not being too open ended or too defined. One method they suggest for doing this is to reverse engineer similar innovations and ask yourself, “What question would have caused me to see this opportunity first?” and then using that question (or series of questions) for your brainstorming activity.

Another way to think about this is to think about breaking out a question into multiple objectives. There’s a good academic paper written by Ralph L. Keeney titled “Value-Focused Brainstorming.” In it, he uses IDEO as an example of how to break down a brainstorming exercise into key objectives. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, wanted to design a product that would enable cyclists to transport and drink coffee while they were riding. A couple of ways to describe what they wanted to design: “spill-proof coffee cup lids,” or “bicycle cup holders.” But a much better description is the following objective: “helping bike commuters to drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues.” Keeney likes this statement because it clearly lays out IDEO’s objectives, to help bike commuters 1) drink coffee, 2) avoid spills, 3) not burn their tongues. He even contributes a few objectives of his own: avoid distractions while biking, don’t contribute to accidents, keep the coffee hot and minimize costs. Going into that much detail before brainstorming about ways to design the cup holder makes IDEO much more likely to succeed.

A last idea on how to accomplish this is by leveraging the questioning brainstorming technique described above. Where the first exercise isn’t jumping into problem-solving mode, but problem discovery mode.

Einstein was reported to have said, “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”

Make sure you do the same for your brainstorming initiative. The up-front effort will result in far better ideas.

Second, ideate individually before and after brainstorming and do more than one brainstorming session

Research is clear. When it comes to getting a quantity of ideas and a large variety of ideas, ideating on your own is better. So provide an opportunity for this in your brainstorming efforts. Save the group activity for discussion of ideas that will lead to further improvements, combining of ideas, etc. The discussion is important and the reason that brainstorming can be such a powerful technique for ideation. Andrew Hargadon’s “How Breakthroughs Happen” shows that creativity occurs when people find ways to build on existing ideas. The power of group brainstorming comes from creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend, and extend their diverse knowledge. If your goal is to just “collect the creative ideas that are out there,” group brainstorms fall short of their potential.

Another key characteristic of problem solving is that it works best when people have time to think on the problem. In “Where Do Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson researches the common patterns for environments for generating good ideas. One of the key observations is what he calls the slow hunch. Most great ideas never come in a Eureka moment, but can take a long time to evolve and are the result often of combining hunches or ideas.

The process of having time to ideate individually, come together as a group and discuss and then have time for individual reflection is what will lead to the best ideas. Ultimately, repeating the process several times is the way most organizations will find their best innovations.

Idea software is something that can aid in facilitating this in a less formal way. Idea software allows for individual ideation, sharing of ideas and comments and voting so that the debate and criticism happens, but allows people to reflect afterward and continue adding to the idea. It’s only when the idea has had sufficient time to be built into a good idea that it’s moved forward for evaluation.

Regardless of whether you use software or tools to create this individual and group dynamic, make sure you leverage the best of both approaches to yield the best results.

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