Deliberate Innovation
Brainstorming is Rubbish!
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Have you ever attended or run a brainstorm?  Most people in all sorts of organisations have heard the word, but how much do people using the term on a daily basis really know about the technique?

When people tell me that they have had poor experiences in brainstorms in general they say one of a few things: That is was disorganised, dominated by someone, or just a list of the same old ideas. (Add your own experiences in the comments at the bottom of this page).

Of course there are many professional individuals who know exactly how to facilitate a brilliant Brainstorm, but they are badly outnumbered by those who ‘picked it up as they went along’.   To be a great brainstormer or brainstorm facilitator you do not need to know that term was first coined by Alex Osborn in his book “Applied Imagination” in 1953, or even that as he worked up the concept throughout the 30’s he had previously called it a ‘Think Up’.  However you do need to know four rules and insist on compliance to them:

No criticism of ideas

Most people know that in a brainstorm there are meant to be rules.  This the best known and in some cases well used, but it often needs to be enforced better.  No criticism means none whatsoever, not even a rolling of eyes!

Have large quantities of ideas

This one’s pretty well known too, but do all of the ideas get captured effectively or are some lost before they make it to the flip-chart?  Whoever has the pen must resist the temptation to filter out the impractical, impossible and foolish.

Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

In some cases this is hinted at with instructions like ‘no idea’s a bad idea’ and similar phrasing, but to get best value from the conversation it needs to be much stronger.  The purpose is to help the conversation take a different route.   If only sensible ideas come out then only well trodden roads can be taken and they lead to all the solutions that you could have listed without the aid of a brainstorm – a great way to waste people’s time!

Build on each others’ ideas

This one of Osborne’s rules is the most often ignored, perhaps because it is the most unfamiliar to those used to criticism as a default mode.  It’s just as important as the others to having truly creative ideas, because if the brainstorm is just a list of thoughts captured as a single word with no conversation, then the results will be poor.

Daft ideas spark new thinking when explored – The key to this is that everyone must contribute to growing the idea, in particular the silly suggestions.   That is how progress is made down roads that could not have been taken from within the accepted thinking and towards creative solutions.   Sometimes hard work, as it can be counter-intuitive to spend even the briefest time adding to thinking that might feel useless!

So brainstorming is rubbish when it is practised badly, but it needn’t be if the whole group can stick to 4 simple rules.  If Osborn were still with us he might be pleased by the ubiquity of the term he coined, but I suspect he would be appalled at the watered-down way in which his tool is understood.  It is however perhaps a testament to the power of brainstorming that it remains fundamental for many who are misusing it – and still getting results!

Will Woodward


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