Over the years the term “brainstorming” has fallen out of favor.
An image of people throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it will stick – meaning throwing out ideas to see if they have any merit – is likely to induce fond memories among old-timers who remember when brainstorming was all the rage.
But, done properly, brainstorming still works.
What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming was the creation of Alex Osborn, a founder of my former agency, BBDO (formerly ). He posited that a group could generate more creative ideas for solving a problem than an individual. There’s been a lot of controversy over the years about his methodology, with research both for and against it.
The New York Times last Sunday carried a very long story entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink in which the writer, Susan Cain, debunks the current trend of people working in teams in open space – or possibly cubicles if they’re lucky – as they collaborate on projects. She champions the introvert who needs quiet and privacy to be creative. I think she makes some valid points
When Brainstorming Works
Where Cain and I diverge, though, is when she writes, “Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity…people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic other’s opinions and lose sight of their own; and often succumb to peer pressure.”
I beg to differ. I’ve participated in, and facilitated, numerous brainstorming sessions, which I prefer to call group problem solving sessions. They generated many original ideas that were successfully implemented.
The Facilitator’s Role
Think of the facilitator as a conductor, bringing the strings, brass and percussion together to produce beautiful music. Without the conductor, the outcome wouldn’t be half as enjoyable with musicians coming in a beat too late or too loud.
When brainstorming, the group has to first identify the real problem. They may have come prepared to work on what they thought the problem was only to discover it was something else.
Let me give you an example. A number of years ago I was invited to facilitate a session for an insurance company in New Jersey. They were losing a lot of sales to the competition. Their products and services were equal to or better than the competition, in their view. The sales team was working hard and making lots of calls. In advance of the session, the team’s leader had concluded that what they needed were more sales people.
The Real Problem
When I arrived, I started by facilitating a discussion about the problem. What did the individuals in the group think? What had they experienced in calling on prospects? Where were things breaking down?
After not too much discussion, the team discovered the real problem. The problem wasn’t that the company did not have enough sales people. The problem was it didn’t have enough trained sales people. The team was making calls but they lacked the training to be successful. It was like a light bulb going off. In changing the problem statement by one word “How do we get enough trained sales people?” we had an entirely different discussion and the ideas came tumbling out.
How to Brainstorm Successfully
Alex Osborn laid out a template for brainstorming that is still used today: focus on generating as many ideas as possible, withhold criticism, welcome unusual ideas, combine and improve ideas.
By also following these guidelines, you are more likely to generate ideas that are actionable:
- Invite a mixed group of staff. Individuals with varying job responsibilities add different perspectives. Invite an employee from outside the department who knows little to nothing about the problem. Some of the best ideas come from people who don’t have a clue that the great idea they contribute is something no one else would have ever thought of.
- Invite your client to participate. This terrifies some agencies – the client will think we don’t know what we’re doing! When I first suggested the idea I thought the managing director would have a heart attack. But the client loved being part of the process and we invited clients regularly after that when we were planning a campaign.
- Maintain control of the group. Cain is correct when she points out that a few members of the group may hog the conversation but it is the facilitator’s responsibility to ensure that everyone contributes. Even introverts have ideas to share.
- Assign responsibilities and deadlines. This is where groups can fail. What do you do with the ideas you generate? The group, the client or the head of the project decides on the ideas to be implemented based on criteria that is established after the session. Don’t give criteria in advance, such as the budget, because it will stifle creativity. At the end of the session, members of the idea team are assigned specific responsibilities with deadlines – not second quarter, but by April 1.
Brainstorming can be an effective tool in generating creative ideas. Not everyone is a Steve Wozniak who invented the first Apple computer or the next Einstein. But everyone has ideas that are worth exploring.
And brainstorming, when done properly, is an effective tool to unleash the creativity of teams whose members aren’t copywriters or designers or great inventors.