Brainstorming is Dead; Long Live Brainstorming


Burkus, David

September 10, 2013

Brainstorming has been under-fire as of late. From critics arguing it doesn’t work because it suspends much needed criticism and conflict, to detractors claiming that it encourages over-bearing extroverts to suppressed the creative ideas of mild-mannered introverts, the arguments against brainstorming have been mounting steadily in recent years. These arguments are compelling not just because they have an element of truth in them but also because they resonate with are experience. We’ve all sat inside and room and carelessly thrown out half-baked ideas under the guise of “brainstorming.” Those draining experiences, combined with these logical-sounding arguments, are enough to cause us to exclaim, “brainstorming is dead.”

But long-live brainstorming.

What our experiences and the critics of brainstorming fail to realize is two-fold: 1) brainstorming is typically never done properly and 2) brainstorming isn’t a stand-alone process.

Alex Osborn, the founder of the brainstorming method, set down very specific rules for brainstorming, many of which aren’t followed in the typical “brainstorming” session. His rules were:

  1. Generate as many ideas as possible.
  2. Defer judgment on all ideas.
  3. Generate wild ideas.
  4. Build upon each other’s ideas.

Teams break these rules all the time. Almost every brainstorming session I’ve been in, and certainly most of the ones you’ve been in too, failed to achieve the second rule, defer judgment. In fact, it’s still under debate whether breaking that rule is a good thing or not. The rule that gets much less debate, but is broken almost as often, is the fourth, build upon other’s ideas. When most groups brainstorm, they shout out ideas as single, self-contained units and not as building blocks of for new ideas. They rarely take the time to combine ideas already on the wall, or build upon someone else’s idea. The real genius to brainstorming isn’t the number of ideas listed in a short period of time (research supports the idea that lone individuals listing ideas separately can yield a higher count). Instead, it’s the many various combinations of ideas that can develop when individuals share their thoughts with each other. Those combinations could never occur apart from interaction.

In addition, brainstorming as an idea generation method isn’t a stand-alone process. Brainstorming represents an exercise in divergent thinking, but combining ideas and applying a convergent thinking process is just as important. This is why every major creative process involves some idea generation stage like brainstorming, but also stages that evaluate, prototype and implement ideas. Very rarely does a market-changing product or a groundbreaking innovation look like any of the ideas that came up during a brainstorming session. The end result of brainstorming is a list ideas that may or may not solve the problem at hand. If you’re looking just at that list, and no idea jumps out as the perfect solution, it’s easy to believe the session was a failure. That’s what makes other stages so necessary. The ideas presented need to be externalized beyond the group, and refined based on the collected reactions.

Brainstorming-as-practiced might fail to produce the desired results, but it will provide a starting ground for selecting and refining ideas into practical solutions. Brainstorming-as-practiced might be dead, but long live brainstorming-as-process.

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