By Chris Thomason -> Why the business world’s favourite thinking tool is letting us down. By the author of  The Idea Generator 15 clever thinking tools to create winning ideas quickly, available to buy here.

It was 1953 when Alex Osborn’s book Applied Imagination birthed brainstorming. It was a cutting-edge concept at the time. It thrived in the same corporate environment alongside accounting’s hand-cranked adding-machine and marketing’s action-list written in chalk on the blackboard in the director’s office.

The earliest investigations into the effectiveness of brainstorming happened at Yale University in 1958 – just five years after the process was developed. The surprising findings were that 48 solo-participants had roughly twice as many ideas as 48 participants formed into brainstorming groups. A panel of judges also regarded the individuals’ ideas to be more feasible and effective than those from the groups.

Over fifty years later in 2012, Keith Sawyer, a psychologist from Washington University summarized the findings on brainstorming by saying “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas”.

If you find that brainstorming frequently fails on its promise to deliver, you’re not alone. When six people have spent two-hours in a room and plastered the walls with scores of sticky-notes – what’s left at the end? Rarely the amazing new idea that was hoped for. Conventional brainstorming is a terrible waste of good-people’s time, because it works contrary to what is required to deliver exceptional business thinking. While a brainstorming group will get more ideas than any individual ever could working on their own, it’s an inefficient and fundamentally flawed process.

Let’s look at the traditional guidelines for brainstorming to see why they don’t work.

#1 There are no dumb ideas so encourage wild and exaggerated thinking

There are plenty of dumb ideas. Everyone in a brainstorming session knows that many of the ideas that are created will be impractical, way beyond the scope of the issue, too risky, not aligned to the company values or business aims – and so on. Wild and exaggerated ideas aren’t intentionally stupid ideas, they’re just totally impractical, pie-in-the-sky stuff – so they might as well be termed ‘dumb’.

#2 Quantity counts at this stage, not quality

No it doesn’t. Quality is always important. Fewer ideas but with a better sense of quality will always be of more value than a large number of useless ideas.

#3 Don’t criticize other people’s ideas

There’s limited time available in any creative thinking session, and if someone is being consistently way-beyond the realistic, then wouldn’t a little constructive guidance help them to potentially create the one idea that’s being looked for within the likely acceptable zone? Is there any other aspect of business where we encourage people to be wrong? Not offering guidance is a clear failure of any process.

#4 Build on other people’s ideas

Sometimes useful, but often it can start adding weight and credence to an idea that wouldn’t have made the grade if someone hadn’t started to build on it.

#5 Every person and every idea has equal worth

No! Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute something useful. How they use that time is up to them. Allowing people to wander too far into la-la-land starts to waste their chance for meaningful contributions – and it can also start to lead other people’s thinking astray too.

#6 Create a fun environment

The future growth of your company often depends on these brainstorming sessions – so do you think that fun is at the forefront of your Board of Directors collective mind? Children need to have fun. Serious professionals relish the chance to stretch their brains. There’ll be more overall satisfaction among the participants if they sense a successful outcome rather than them having a fun time creating nothing of practical value.

#7 Only one person talking at a time

When you’re trying to concentrate on some important thinking issue, do you find it useful to have someone blabbing? Especially when you are supposed to be paying attention to what they’re saying? Doubtful. Your best ideas frequently come when you have moments of silence to consider the issue in your mind. This brainstorming rule ensures that there may only be one person talking at a time – but also that there’s always someone talking.

So the basic principles of a brainstorming session are flawed. But that’s not all. There are other deeper issues that cause problems too.

#8 HiPPOs rule the waves

The highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) openly and sub-consciously influences what success will look like. What they offer in the way of ideas, how they comment on the ideas of others, and the slow-nodding of their head in agreement when they hear a good idea. HiPPOs adversely affect what people say and do in brainstorming sessions. Having a HiPPO in the room can also limit what ideas people voice for fear of making a career-limiting move through the suggestion of an idea which the HiPPO may regard negatively.

#9 Accepting the lowest common denominator

Rather than allowing a motivated individual to develop a feasible idea that they feel passionate about, a brainstorming group often promotes the idea that they feel most comfortable with. This is the lowest common denominator of agreement. It’s similar to agreeing to just take the low-hanging fruit, which invariably consists of lesser, and easier ideas to execute. While the brainstorming group is promoting the lowest common denominator as their recommendation – the best opportunity for the business may invariably be left as a sticky-note on the wall – as it’s deemed too high up on the fruit tree.

#10 False anchoring

Early in the session, somebody puts up an idea which gets a supportive comment like ‘that’s brilliant’. This is a recipe for disaster, for from that moment on, this idea acts as a false anchor or a black hole for thinking. Similarly with a HiPPO’s comment too. The early ideas in a session frequently tend to get prominence, as people openly (or inadvertently) state their pet-idea with some supporting comment designed to influence people. The early ideas (if they are strong) tend to define the terrain and also form immovable anchors. Additionally, people who are the acknowledged experts in their field will invariably tend to provide artificial anchor points through the ideas they voice in a group.

#11 Aggression or agreement

If a team is involved in brainstorming an issue, the general guidelines sit around being supportive and reaching a consensus. However pleasant and warming it may feel, in-breeding isn’t a desirable trait to encourage. Teams need to get outsiders in to strongly challenge their thinking. This is contrary to the brainstorming approach where a team want to be seen to be getting along. Potentially, it’s during this search for new opportunities where the existing ‘pleasant stability’ needs to be most-strongly challenged.

#12 Voting on ideas

Frequently at the end of a brainstorm, people vote on the best ideas to take forward. Unless the team are all responsible for the success of the outcome, the choice of what to do next should be left to the owner of the issue. They, as the responsible person, should decide in the light of a new-day what will be taken forward. In longer ideation sessions that have an overnight break, it’s remarkable how often the priorities identified at the end of the previous day change as a result of the overnight subconscious of the participants being given time to influence – without any formal exercises being done. If a brainstorming group vote on the best idea in a session, it’s demoralising for them when a single person has to override their decision at a later stage.

#13 The illusion of productivity

A group of people working towards the same company goals will invariably feel that their combined skills, knowledge and abilities working in a brainstorming session will have added value to the business. The aforementioned lowest common denominator effect potentially means that they will deliver outputs lower than their potential to achieve. Unfortunately this starts reinforcing beliefs that mediocrity is deemed to be success – and that the process has been successful.

#14 Group-hugs

At the end of a session, it’s customary for the sponsor to thank people and be complimentary about the output. If six people have been in the meeting, five will walk out having been warmly-thanked by the sixth, and feel that they’ve added value in the time they gave up. The sponsor, meanwhile, is left to try and pull some magic out of a sticky-note hat. One unhappy person, five happy – and the myth of another valuable brainstorming session is perpetuated within the business.

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So what now?

Times may have changed and the adding machines and blackboards are sitting in landfill sites or in museums, but shockingly, thinking about growth opportunities frequently still depends on brainstorming.

There are reasons today why we are old-fashioned thinkers. It’s because we know no different, and also because we allow ourselves to be guided by others who know no different than brainstorming. Brainstorming is always well-meaning and intuitively feels like the right thing to do – and some benefits may accrue as it gets people in the same room and talking about an issue which they wouldn’t normally do otherwise.

In 2018 it will be a celebration in more ways than one as brainstorming will be sixty-five years-old – the official retirement age in many businesses. However, any company that is serious in its needs for better growth opportunities should retire it earlier. Like right now! Brainstorming is a broken model with too much ineffective momentum locked in for it to be turned around. It’s an inefficient thinking process which needs to be replaced with a new approach that is based upon our contemporary knowledge of how the mind works.

Brainstorming encourages passive thinking – a peaceful, wait-your-turn, unbounded type of thinking. Unfortunately for brainstorming, business growth needs something better – and today is as good-a-day as any to put brainstorming out of its misery. It’s time for a twenty-first century approach to thinking. A more aggressive, focused, and stimulating approach that will help businesses to out-think their competition.

It’s time for The Idea Generator to deliver a new thinking approach for you.


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