“Brainstorming doesn’t work”?

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/DrAfter123

I recently wrote a post titled “Thoughts on ideas, brainstorming, facilitation, and crowdsourcing“.  In that I wrote “I love brainstorming”. And I still do (for the reasons given in that last post).

Interestingly however, since writing that post, I’ve come across a number of opponents to brainstorming, most recently with the recommendation to search for “brainstorming doesn’t work” in Google – in true Google style, there are “About 7,030,000 results (0.21 seconds)”. In contrast, Googling “benefits of brainstorming” yields only about 4,200,000 results …

So what’s wrong?

A couple of specific links from these, both directly from the search results as well as from links within the search results, which I found interesting:

Interestingly, Kevin Coyne (joint author of the first article above), together with Shawn Coyne, recently quoted, in reference to their new book ‘Brainsteering’ in a recent McKinsey Quarterly magazine (“Seven steps to better brainstorming“):

Traditional brainstorming is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow. By scrapping these traditional techniques for a more focused, question- based approach, senior managers can consistently coax better ideas from their teams.

As seems often to be the case, Wikipedia provides a good, balanced account of 'Brainstorming', with reference to some interesting further studies, including, in particular:

A couple of my reflections on what I’ve seen in the first few of the 7,030,000 results and my own experiences with brainstorming:

(i) Too many people have been forced out of their cubicles, to brainstorm against their wishes, or to sit through brainstorming with people who don’t want to participate (without motivation brainstorming will likely only frustrate everyone present)

(ii) The existence of bad brainstorming doesn’t mean per se that brainstorming is bad – it just means that lots of people could benefit from improving how they use brainstorming, and their own personal contributions to brainstorming.

(iii) Brainstorming isn’t the only tool, but it’s a tool that should be in the toolbox (and all too often, there aren’t many tools in the shed, let alone the tool box) – anything that encourages more thinking, creativity is in my view good (that’s not to say that brainstorming can’t be improved upon)

Many of the articles on this topic refer to brainstorming’s failings, to avoid biases of homogeneity (‘groupthink’), lack of efficiency (unstructured, abstract, disorganized), domination of brainstorming sessions by influential and/or energetic characters,  fear of failure or looking stupid … The list goes on.

These are all valid points, but if you let these persuade you not to do brainstorming, you need to think how else you might alternatively capture the creative benefits of brainstorming (asking people to be creative alone is often also not a successful strategy).

Conclusions

I stand by my original statement.  I love brainstorming.

There’s a lot of anti-brainstorming sentiment, but I generally don’t believe this is opposition to creativity, rather opposition to poor management.

I therefore don’t think Brainstorming should be binned – that would be a knee-jerk reaction; rather, organizers of brainstorming sessions, and the participants in those sessions, should think (brainstorm?!) how to complement brainstorming with other ‘tools’, and how to make their brainstorming more Focused, Effective/efficient, Appreciated, and Relevant (‘FEAR‘!) – the articles linked to above give some good initial ideas on that, but first of all, common sense and reflection are a good start.

What are your experiences with brainstorming sessions?

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