Brainstorming Still Works – When You Know How to Use It

"Brainstorm ideas"

Brainstorm ideas

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 Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn). 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.

Sometimes two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two and eight heads are better than four.

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  1. Another fantastic blog Jeannette. I have been in meetings with people who parrot the ideas of others, but I also know that certain personality types thrive in a group setting because they like to perform. Those people come alive in a group and get others excited about making their own contributions. Brainstorming is the spice of business. It’s the Cinnamon in the apple pie that brings disparate ideas together to create a dish that is well blended, balanced and flavorful. I couldn’t imagine the business world without it. Maybe others could help me brainstorm what that world would look like 🙂

    • Well, of course I agree with you, Amy! I once did a brainstorming session for a group of consultants on how to jump-start a new service. They had been dancing around this new offering for two years with little progress. When I entered the room, I was met with silence. We were in an airport conference room and most of them had traveled there from other cities. Definitely a “show me” attitude. At the end of the session, one of consultants approached me and said, “I didn’t want to be here. But this has been terrific. Thank you.” They left with a blueprint of the launch. Made me feel good.

  2. I love brainstorming Jeannette and I agree with you that the key is the facilitator. You need to lead the conversation, stay on point and encourage participation from everyone. I used to lead more than my share of cross-functional department teams and enjoyed every minute of it. Assigning responsibilities and deadlines is key. The other two things that I found to be essential is top management buy-in and regular scheduled meetings. Top management buy-in is critical. If a team comes up with ideas and suggestions, they should be valued. When a team is empowered to make change, they’ll continue to brainstorm. By tracking the results of their suggested improvements and adjusting as necessary, you’ll see the pride that the individual members. As for regularly scheduled meetings, they keep the team on point. It’s a good time to review responsibilities and assign accountability. Thanks for sharing! This brings back a flood of memories for me.

    • Sherryl, you make an important point. If a team gets together and comes up with great ideas and they are not implemented by management, that is a real morale killer. The team leader and facilitator should be sure that top management is totally behind the effort.

  3. Hi Jeannette,

    I think brainstorming can be very effective. As you mentioned the facilitator is important and can set the tone to encourage participation. Making it fun and not getting caught up in details is one way to keep ideas flowing. Also the last point is critical otherwise those that have participated will see the sessions as a waste of time.

    • Susan — keeping the session flowing is important or else the participants will get bored and tune out. That’s why it’s a good idea to prepare questions in advance to draw out the ideas. Sometimes there is a lull in a session – it just happens. That’s when the facilitator has to jump in with a provocative question to get everyone’s attention again.

  4. I love brainstorming – when it’s done correctly. In addition to the key role of the facilitator, it is so critical that all the participants feel free to speak openly. I’ve seen too many brainstorming sessions shut down as everyone defers to the executive in charge. The other rule in the successful brainstorms I’ve been in is that criticizing someone else’s idea is forbidden; you never know when an idea that may not work in its entirety can serve as the catalyst for a brilliant idea from someone else.

    • Thanks, Kathy for your comment. You have to be careful when you invite the “boss” to the presentation. This is a discussion the facilitator needs to have in advance. Will the boss be so intimidating that people will simply clam up? Hopefully, s/he will be honest in appraising the situation and not participate if that’s the case.

  5. Harrison, it’s important to evaluate the composition of the group in advance of the session. If someone is invited to the group and expresses discomfort with participating, then don’t force them to come.

  6. Jeannette, as you know, I love brainstorming. Several brains are much better than one. Personally have found that the ideas that at first seem outrageous and crazy are the best ones. So courage is essential to succeed with brainstorming. And the interest in innovating.

    • Catherine — I agree the outrageous ideas are sometimes the best. When I facilitate a brainstorming session I always end with a request that the participants give me their “wildest” ideas. I urge them not to worry how silly or impossible they may seem. Giving them this freedom to say what other people might think is stupid or impossible has turned up some of the best ideas of the session.