2 simple tweaks to make brainstorming MUCH better

For decades, “brainstorming” in groups has been the hot process to adopt… but research tells a very different story.

For decades, “brainstorming” has been the hot process to adopt… but research tells a very different story.

I think it’s safe to say that the word “brainstorm” has packed its dusty things and moved to the cliché section of our language. At one time, it was a smoking hot word, with a corner office in just about every ad agency and corporation in America. And in many a workplace, it still has a presence.

The original term and technique was crafted by one of advertising’s early “mad men.” His name was Alex F. Osborn, a founder of BBDO, and a smart, strategic guy who was mildly obsessed with creative techniques. He wrote several books on the subject.

Advertising folklore tells a tale of Osborne being ticked at his staff. This was the late 1930s, when agencies gave individual employees creative assignments to work on. Apparently, the creative minds at BBDO had been running dry, much to Osborn’s chagrin. So, the frustrated executive flipped things around and put groups to work on his projects. He found that “squads” produced much better concepts than soloists.

And so, the brainstorm session was born.

Today, “brainstorm” is a catchall phrase for any ideation session, used by everyone from school kids to CEOs. But Osborn had very specific rules he outlined in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination:

> Focus on a specific problem or issue.

> Come up with lots of ideas.

> Encourage participation and don’t judge.

> Welcome new perspectives and challenge assumptions.

> Connect ideas to form bigger and better ones.

Sounds great, right? There’s just one problem. Multiple studies show that brainstorming like this doesn’t really work.

One such study was conducted by Osborn himself later in his life, when he found that people solved puzzles better on their own than in a group. What Osborn hadn’t considered—and what we all forget in brainstorm sessions—is the effect of group dynamics:

Extraverts tend to run the show. They openly express their ideas more than introverted types and tend to dominate these sessions. So groups may discourage or leave out whole swaths of the population from sharing their ideas.

Low-hanging fruit wins. Since groups can ignite competition, there’s often “that guy” who blurts out the most obvious, hacky solution, just to be first. Since we must abide by the “no idea is bad” rule, mediocrity wins the day. Deeper thinking or exploring doesn’t even happen.

Conformity is king. Once a group gets into an idea, very few people will play the contrarian and challenge the group. Most fall pray to groupthink. The end result: Assimilation not originality.

So, how do you fix your next brainstorming session? Research shows that a few tweaks is all you need to produce much more original, usable ideas…

Let everyone work alone first. Have them write down all their ideas and bring them to the group brainstorm. Then, have a method where everyone shares their concepts equally. Studies demonstrate that people flying solo first produce 20% more ideas and 40% more original ideas, compared to tired old brainstorming practices.

Encourage gentle debate. Things don’t have to get ugly, but you should at least discuss if an idea will work or not. Scrutiny forces people to think deeper, defend and define their ideas, and be more engaged in the process. Research tells us this will yield a good 20% more ideas than the typical “no idea is bad” love-in.

We take this modified ideation approach in our agency. Not by any grand design or from being hip to the latest research. Truth be told, we just kind of fell into it. But I can tell you, it does work—far better than a bunch of us sitting in a room, rambling and ruminating.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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