Brainstorming seems to be getting a bad rap these days. Is it time for large and small businesses to throw out collaborative thinking to generate new ideas? Last year, an article in the New Yorker “Groupthink, The brainstorming myth,” by Jonah Lehrer, a science journalist and author, sought to debunk the myth about groups working together to solve a creative problem. (The brainstorming concept was originally advanced by the famous ad man Alex Osborne of B.B.D.O. in the 1950s) Lehrer cites studies that suggest individuals generate more quality ideas, even if groups generate a greater volume of them.
Jonathan Becker, chief marketing officer at SAP, takes an even stronger position in “Is Brainstorming Brain Dead.” He makes no bones about his belief that ‘brainstorming is a bad idea that does not work.” He too references studies indicating that individuals perform better than groups and that performance of brainstorming actually gets worse as the size of the group increases.
Unlike Lehrer and Becker, I’m not about to bag the brainstorm. But some may need to change. When they are run right – and that includes what happens before, during and after — they can be very effective in generating ideas. They miss the mark when one or two people dominate the meeting or the group spends too much time on one idea at the expense of considering all the possibilities.
A brainstorm session is a process. Here are some steps that I find help you get the best results.
Clarify your goal: Make the goal clear. Generate marketing campaign ideas to reach mobile users is a concrete goal; come up with new marketing ideas isn’t.
Get input in advance: Some people need more time to allow their creative juices to flow. You might want to ask participants to come up with ideas and submit them in advance of the meeting. Gather all the input and make it available before your session so participants can consider pros and cons before the meeting.
Don’t set limitations: Asking participants to consider suggestions in advance gives them more time to think about which have the most merit and why. Still when you get together avoid criticism as you evaluate the options; one idea can spark other. The value of brainstorming is being open to ideas and suggestions. It’s not a process of elimination.
Focus on the ideas not the actions: A brainstorm session is not the time to start the implementation process. Invariably there will be some discussion about how to make an idea happen, but keep the conversation at a highly creative level and don’t dive into details during your brainstorm.
Plan next steps: Schedule a follow-up to brainstorm more ideas or come up with a plan put the idea to into motion.
Some experts recommend you also go offsite for the brainstorm. If possible, do. It can help to eliminate interruptions.
While critics may cast doubt on the process, brainstorming when done right can be a highly effective way to solve problems. It also can stretch your team to think of new possibilities.