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Black clouds gather over brainstorming as we know it

Rethinking the method in team communication

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Female writing outside

For years, it was considered the top technique to develop strategies and ideas to get ahead of the game.

So why is brainstorming now under a cloud?

Brainstorming involves a group of individuals bantering around the table to develop solutions to a problem, challenge or opportunity.

The method of idea generation follows many principles.

When people gather to brainstorm, quantity of ideas is encouraged, judgment and criticism are not allowed, wild or crazy ideas are desirable and combining or extending ideas is perfectly acceptable. And according to the brainstorming gospel, “no idea is a bad idea”.

Experts argue that great ideas are generated during brainstorming sessions because “two heads are better than one” and the collaboration required means people can bounce ideas off each other effectively.

Plus, with judgment suspended as ideas are spat out in a frenzy, participants are more likely to be creative because there is no reprisal for dishing up unpolished or “out of the box” thinking.

Traditional brainstorming challenges

Yet there are increasing concerns that free-wheeling brainstorming sessions might not be as effective as once thought.

The concept of brainstorming is increasingly attracting criticism.

It has been dismissed as a method of gathering employees in a room to try to guess what their boss wants, an unstructured free-for-all that rapidly descends into chaos and a well-intentioned ideas fest where creativity rapidly gravitates towards group think.

And it is not just critics who have cast a black cloud over the oft-cited merits of brainstorming.

More and more studies are revealing less-than-flattering aspects of brainstorming.

Research reported in Professor Sheena Iyengar’s recently released book “Think Bigger” concluded that brainstorming is usually a waste of time – at least the way we do it.

The Columbia Business School academic came to the conclusion after 10 years of research that included more than 1000 interviews on how to best generate new ideas.

Professor Iyengar found that some of the problems with brainstorming included non-stop talkers with very average ideas as well as intelligent people who failed to speak up.

She suggested that the principles of brainstorming, such as suspending judgment and leveraging others’ contributions, were better suited to a polite dinner table discussion rather than for making robust business decisions.

Other studies have also shown that a significant number of participants in brainstorming sessions experience pressure to conform to prevailing ideas or thought patterns and therefore are reduced to being part of group thinking.

Alternative approaches

Experts generally agree that the brainstorming process can be made more effective.

One suggestion is to remove the requirement to suspend judgment on ideas as they are blurted out and allow thoughts and suggestions to be debated.

Another alternative is to “brain-swarm” instead of “storm”. This requires all participants to silently create their own list of ideas first rather than shouting them out, reducing the likelihood one or two people will dominate proceedings.

Brainstorming plays an important role in many workplaces.

But just a little rejigging of the process might make the difference between participants loving or loathing the whole experience.