The Truth About Brainstorming

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Want to develop creative problem solving skills, collaborate with your team, and generate profitable ideas in your organization? Then traditional brainstorming won't cut it. But there is a better way.

If you’ve ever been in a brainstorming meeting and wondered why it wasn’t producing the expected results, you're not alone. While the brainstorming can be an effective way to drive innovation through collaboration and creative thinking, it’s been around since the 1950s and way past due for improvement.

It is possible to make brainstorming sessions easier and more productive, which is why I developed Creativity Cards: Brainstorming Made Easy™, but first it’s worth defining our terms and reviewing the process as it’s typically implemented. Then I’ll offer some suggestions that can create the conditions for much more profitable outcomes.

What Is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a group activity designed to overcome a specific problem by coming up with as many ideas as possible during a time-limited session.

The 4 Rules of Brainstorming 

  • Define a goal 

  • Withhold judgement

  • Build on each others ideas

  • Come up with as many ideas as possible

Once the group finishes their brainstorming session, they then evaluate their ideas to determine which ones to implement.

The Objective

Brainstorming was developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s as a method for creative problem solving and was officially introduced to the world in his book ‘Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking’ in 1953.

The objective of brainstorming is to reduce social inhibitions amongst the group, stimulate the generation of ideas, and leverage the creativity of each person participating in the session by deferring judgement while prioritizing quantity over quality.

The Science

In 1958 Yale University presented the first significant study showing that brainstorming doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. In this study there were groups of students assigned to use brainstorming to solve a series of creative puzzles. The rest of the students in the study were instructed to do the same, on their own, and without the use of brainstorming.

Surprisingly, the students that worked by themselves came up with roughly twice as many solutions as did the groups. And those individually designed solutions were determined to be better than the ones thought up by the brainstorming groups. 

Similar follow-up studies have been done and each has come to the same conclusion. 

The Problem

The main problem with brainstorming is the social dynamic of  collaborative fixation, which basically means people in groups tend to ‘go with the flow’ (either consciously or subconsciously) and tend to agree with the dominant and accepted way of thinking. This usually results in doing things the way they’ve always been done. 

The other big issue is what’s known as production blocking, which simply means that since it’s only possible for one person to share their ideas at a time the other members of the group may forget their own ideas or decide that they aren’t good enough by the time they have a chance to speak. In the meantime, the ideas of more extroverted group members tend to drown out those who are more introverted. 

And finally, it appears that Alex Osborn was incorrect to suggest deferring judgement during your brainstorming session. More recent studies have shown that constructive criticism actually helps improve both the quality and quantity of ideas and should be included at the end of your brainstorming sessions for the best results. 

Now that we’ve identified the problems with brainstorming, we can set about fixing them. There are actually several ways we can make your brainstorm sessions more effective.


The Solution: How to Make Brainstorming Better

1. COLLABORATE

Before you begin your brainstorming session, make sure everyone involved has been properly introduced and that everyone knows they have a unique and valuable perspective to offer. Everyone should feel empowered to participate. For example, if a manager is present then junior members may feel intimidated and not want to share their ideas. But good ideas can come from anywhere, so we need their voices to be heard.

If this is the case, then at the start of the session, have each person write down their own ideas individually. This will help avoid the effects of collaborative fixation and production blocking by giving everyone equal time to think of and express their ideas simultaneously, without being influenced or diminished by the more dominant voices in the group.

2. COMMUNICATE

Once everyone is finished, or after a predetermined time limit is reached, go around the room one by one and allow each person to share their ideas with the rest of the group. This sharing of ideas can inspire even more ideas to emerge and build upon one another.

3. CRITIQUE AND EVALUATE

This next step goes directly against traditional brainstorming models, but you’ll want to allow for constructive criticism at the end of the brainstorming session. With an emphasis on “constructive”. 

A series of studies done in 2003 at UC Berkeley revealed that criticism can actually improve both quality and quantity of creative ideas. This is exactly what we want to achieve in a good brainstorming session.

Additional studies on the subject of the effects of criticism on creativity have come to the same conclusion. By pointing out the possible weaknesses of ideas it gets the other members thinking of improvements and can again inspire additional ideas.

Once the constructive criticism has been given, evaluate the best ideas and resolve to implement at least one of them.

Creativity Cards Make Brainstorming Easy

Creativty Cards

If you follow the guidelines I just defined, your brainstorming sessions will be easier to run and far more effective than they would be if you had followed a traditional brainstorming approach. 

These are just a few of the improvements I’ve introduced to the process of brainstorming profitable ideas in your organization through my interactive deck, Creativity Cards: Brainstorming Made Easy™. 

Creativity Cards are a fun, interactive team building exercise that teach creative problem solving skills and simplify the process of generating new ideas.

There are 6 categories of Creativity Cards: Gameplay, Focus, Perspective, Transform, Question, and Evaluate. 54 cards in all, which take participants step-by-step through the process of generating profitable ideas in a systematic fashion. It’s brainstorming made easy!

Find out more about how to run a fun, easy, and profitable brainstorming session at your organization by using Creativity Cards: Brainstorming Made Easy™ at creativitycardgame.com