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Brainstorming: Turning a Time-waster into an Idea-generator

We’ve all been there, and we’ve all secretly (or not so secretly) looked for an escape route to avoid losing another hour of our lives in an unproductive “brainstorming” session. If this meeting is anything like the last one, you will cram into a too-small room while one or two people dominate the conversation.  Only a few ideas will come out before the conversation is sidetracked down “That’ll Never Work Highway” and “We Tried That Last Time Boulevard.” You spoke up in the last meeting, but after being dismissed, you can’t force yourself to offer another idea in what is sure to be a continuing exercise in mediocrity.


Your office isn’t the only place where brainstorming fizzles. Harvard Business Review is filled with articles about bad brainstorming experiences. “It was like wading through oatmeal,” says one author. “Your team is brainstorming all wrong,” says another. A third explains “Why group brainstorming is a waste of time.” One simply accepts defeat with “Why you should stop brainstorming.”  


It doesn’t have to be this way. In a few minutes you can understand the origins, psychology, neuroscience, and laws of brainstorming that will let you turn a time-waster into an idea-generator.


If brainstorming is so excruciating, why do so many people do it? 


One, it is cheap. With nothing more than a piece of paper and a pen, a team can start a brainstorming session.


Two, it sounds like you are doing something. Reporting to the Boss that “we spent an hour brainstorming some new ideas” sounds more productive than “we sat around going off on tangents and complaining until we ran out of coffee.” Because there is so little understanding of what brainstorming was meant to be, it becomes anything you can imagine. The word itself sounds exciting. What’s smarter than a brain? Literally nothing. What is more powerful than a storm? Not much. A storm of smartness? Sign me up.


Three, it is an acceptable technique for even the most staid industries. Tell Phil from accounting you are going to do a group sketching exercise, and he breaks into sweats remembering the time in elementary school when his drawing of Thomas Jefferson was mistaken for a one-horned moose. Judy from the warehouse will report you to HR if you invite her to a S.C.A.M.P.E.R. session. And good luck facilitating SEAL Team 6 past the first of the “six thinking hats” technique before someone ends up in an arm bar. Everyone, however, wants to be a part of their first brainstorming session. If you do it right, you might even get Phil to come back for a second one.


In fact, studies show the act of having even a mildly productive brainstorming session raises morale and increases employee satisfaction--regardless of the number or quality of the ideas.


But, does it work?


Alex Osborn

The academic research is a mixed bag. On the whole, there are more studies that say traditional brainstorming results in fewer ideas than other techniques. In particular, techniques where ideas are written in silence produce a larger number of ideas than sessions where participants explain each of their ideas. The fact is, some people won’t stop talking…I’m looking at you extroverted-Eddie. When one person is talking, others can’t convey their ideas.


There are brainstorming variations that produce more ideas and more categories of ideas than canonical brainstorming. Electronic brainstorming where people type ideas into a computer without having to wait their turn to speak is one approach that will usually be more effective.


But, brainstorming according to the original process can produce a ton of ideas and several will be original. In any creative ideation, there is a high "bad-idea rate". In a typical brainstorming session, you can expect about 1 original, feasible idea for every 24 standard, insane, or impossible Martian-based idea on the board. Good ideas emerge when one person’s idea resonates in the mind of another spawning a wholly new idea. As Alex Osborn, the creator of brainstorming, explained, “When you really get going in a brainstorming session, a spark from one mind will light up a lot of bang-up ideas in the others just like a string of firecrackers.”


I think of “real” brainstorming (not the time wasting exercise in your conference room) as the Top Ramen of creativity techniques—effective, but not optimized. You can get better results with a different recipe, but brainstorming is cheap, easy, and familiar.


Back to the Basics….what is “real” brainstorming


Alex Osborn, born in 1888, became an ad man in New York City where he founded a world-class ad agency. The agency was named BBDO, and the O is Alex Osborn. Today the firm employs 15,000 people around the world and is responsible for the latest AT&T and M&M campaigns. In 1939, right at the end of the Great Depression, Osborn ran into his own tough problem. The D in BBDO left the firm taking his biggest clients with him. 


Rather than shuttering the doors and joining the soup lines, Osborn doubled-down on creativity and formalized rules designed to turn wasteful meetings into aggressive idea-generation sessions. As it turns out, the “storm” in brainstorming has nothing to do with thunderbolts and wind. Osborn explained “brainstorm means to use the brain to storm a creative problem and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.”  


It is probably no coincidence Osborn created the idea of brainstorming as news reports of Hitler’s armies conducting lightning warfare across Europe filled the newsreels.


He had 4 simple rules for running these storming sessions. If you do nothing else, but adhere to these 4 rules, your brainstorming sessions will be transformed back into something useful.


1.      Judicial judgement is ruled out. Criticism of ideas must be withheld until later.


2.      “Free-wheeling” is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better; it is easier to tone down than to think up.


3.      Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.


4.      Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea.


Osborn and BBDO used this technique to generate hundreds of winners, despite passive voice being excessively overused. He encouraged those running the storming sessions to put the rules into their own words…for one leader, rule #1 was replaced with “think-up or shut-up.” 



Osborn also saw these sessions fail. “Fiascoes are usually due to a failure of leadership. For example, if a group-chairman acts omniscient, he makes his more timid members afraid to open their mouths.” We all know we have entered into a brainstorming fiasco when the Boss turns the session into a well-reasoned analysis of why the perfect solution to this problem happens to be their pet project…"let’s come up with ideas to show how right I have been all along."


Why do these rules matter?


Osborn wasn’t a psychologist, but he had a keen understanding of people. He wasn’t a neuroscientist, but he understood how the brain works. Brainstorming as a technique has survived 80 years…from silly putty and the slinky through the nuclear age and all the way to today when people throw processed cheese at babies for social validation on the internet. (Humans are a mysterious race.) A technique doesn’t survive 80 years unless it works.


Here is how the rules help to overcome the limitations of group projects like brainstorming:


1.      Withholding judgment – As I mentioned in another article, the lack of psychological safety is the #1 reason people don't share their ideas. Twenty-four out of every twenty-five ideas are bad ones. People who want to keep their jobs, social status, and dignity have a hard time offering 24 bad ideas in a row. Teams can build this resilience, however, by creating an atmosphere of respect and candor. There will be plenty of time for Doubting Thomas to explain why Betty’s idea “won’t scale” when we are done with storming.


Addendum A to Rule #1: When you are presenting your idea to the group, only say enough to allow them to understand the idea…not to convince them it is a good one. You don’t need to explain how seeing a whale breaching in the surf made you feel--just post your idea about adding a blowhole to the design. Research shows even 5 seconds of talking is enough to disrupt the process.


2.      Bring creative ideas—I’ve said before, one of the easiest ways to get a team to be more creative is to simply ask them to be more creative. In studies where the brainstorming instructions specifically ask for “original ideas,” groups produce more original ideas. As our brains look for new concept combinations, they go beyond the simple, safe answers and look for something new. When you give these instructions, brain waves change in a way that can be detected in an EEG or a functional MRI. If you are following Rule #1, ideas will get more creative the deeper you go into the storming session.


3.      Quantity has a quality all of its own when it comes to ideas – Creative ideation is a numbers game. Inside your brain is a web of experiences, language, education, and imagination. A single creator can find striking new combinations inside their own mind, but when you add a co-creator, the possibilities increase exponentially. Adding other stormers to the attack creates an ever-increasing number of possibilities…until the idea-space gets too crowded and people can’t share their ideas. Osborn recommended no more than 5-10 people per storming session.


4.      Combinations = creativity. In 2018, Apple sold nearly 220 million iPhones worldwide. Only 11 years prior, the iPhone was the first to combine a music player with a telephone. Today, we all carry phones, but we spend 90% of our time doing something other than talking on them…playing candy-based games, monitoring our steps, reading news, watching funny cat videos, being trolled by Russian-based bots…you know, the usual. Every great idea is the combination of at least 2 other ideas. Finding these combinations is the essence of creativity.


So, tell me how to run a brainstorming session for a tough problem


1.      Choose the beach to storm. Spend the time required to define the problem. Write it down where everyone can see it while they are coming up with ideas. Don’t rush this one. Imagine your surprise when you realize you have stormed the wrong beach. In fact, for a really tough problem, you may want to do an entire storming session around “why” this is a problem. If you are planning ahead, let the stormers know what you will be working on in the upcoming session. Their brains will already start thinking of ideas before they show up. 


2.      Communicate the attack plan. Ensure everyone is clear on the 4 rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you aren’t doing brainstorming. 


3.      Start on paper. Start the ideation session with 5 minutes of alone time with stormers writing down the first ideas that come up. These first ideas are unlikely to be the most original ones, so get them out of the way early.


4.      Post these ideas for all to see. Here is where the team gets to practice following the rules. The leader should be on the lookout for judgment and grandstanding. Enforcing the rules here lets the team see commitment to psychological safety and the process. If someone has the same idea, post the ideas together to begin forming groupings of related ideas.


5.      Avoid side conversations – The team’s storm is the only attack on this beach. Side conversations reduce the chance of combinations and disrupt the respectful environment the leader is creating.


6.      Shift fire – When the storm begins to lose steam, the leader can change the avenue of attack with prompts. It could be as simple as “how does Betty’s idea about surveying customers connect with Adam’s idea of beer in the breakroom?” What could we do if we had $1000, $10K, or $1B to spend on fixing this problem? What ideas could we try if we lived in a world where shipping was always free? What if our company was half its current size? What if we were twice the size? Be sure to ask these questions one at a time to get the most benefit.


7.      Regroup – As the ideas stop flowing and shifting fire doesn’t work anymore, take a look around. Can you group the ideas into major themes? Are some of the ideas related to actions while others are related to attitudes? Are some ideas internal culture changes while others are changes in outward perceptions? Putting the ideas into bins will begin to clarify major themes.


8.      Declare brainstorming victory and move on to the next objective – With these ideas, the storm is over and the objective is seized…but, the problem isn’t solved. No company can implement 100 separate solutions to the same problem simultaneously. Brainstorming isn’t designed to solve a problem. It is intended “for the sole purpose of producing a checklist of ideas—ideas which can serve as leads to problem solutions—ideas which can subsequently be evaluated and further processed” according to Osborne. The team that did the brainstorming might not be the team to evaluate the ideas. Converging on a few solutions takes different skills and different approaches we will discuss in a later article.


9.     Call in support-- If all of this still seems like too much, hire a facilitator to take you through the process. Facilitators have seen the brainstorming process generate terrific ideas that are turned into solutions. Outside facilitators bring a new perspective that can shift your team into an idea-generating machine. 


Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm helping businesses and non-profits apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. Dan is available for keynotes, team training, consulting, and guided ideationThe opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.






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