Brainstorming – a natural disaster

Brainstorming is used extensively across all industries, for many of the most important business decisions we make.  The concept was first explained in Alex Osborn’s book, Applied Imagination published in 1953. The basic idea was if judgement was suspended, a bold and copious flow of original ideas would follow.

This is based on Osborn’s assumption that, “the average person can think of twice as many ideas working in a group than working alone.”

Simply not true!

Nearly a hundred empirical studies have been conducted over the years all coming to the same basic conclusion - brainstorming simply does not generate better ideas.

View: A Review of Brainstorming Research - Six Critical Issues for Inquiry - Scott G Isaksen - Creative Research Unit, Buffalo, New York

Brainstorming is the most over-used tool in business today, to the point that it is undermining our ability to innovate for three important reasons:

1) Brainstorming simply generates too many ideas

The rules of brainstorming are well understood – suspend judgement, encourage wild and exaggerated ideas, quantity not quality, and every idea has equal worth.

The result is usually 100’s of ideas, amongst which might be the beginnings of a really valuable idea. However, the sheer volume of nonsense often washes away all the value. I have seen how often too many poorly conceived ideas can overwhelm the real gems, clogging up the evaluation process and wasting resources.

2) An excuse for not thinking

Brainstorming has become an excuse to short-cut real thinking, a ‘quick and dirty’ way of taking action in a total vacuum.

But the biggest issue with brainstorming is the idea that we can simply come up with ideas without spending any time understanding the real issues or looking at the issues through the eyes of those affected. It is just too easy to get a bunch of people in a room and brainstorm some ideas. It’s simply shorthand for, “I can’t be bothered to think on my own, so lets have a group think because at least if the idea doesn’t work, no one can blame me.”


You can’t solve a problem...

if it does not exist

3) Brainstorming marginalises the best minds

Brainstorming has also become the domain of the quick-witted and loud-mouthed, where he who shouts the loudest gets heard.

Yet, so often the people with the most knowledge and insight are the ones who can’t or won’t enter a shouting competition to be heard. These people are also reluctant to offer their thoughts, for fear that the more adept brainstormers will take ownership of the idea and claim recognition.

Today, if your competitor was looking for a way to distract you and tie up your resources, there would really be no better way than offering to host a complimentary brainstorming session for your staff.

Lock your best minds in a room for a couple of days to generate 100’s of left-field ideas, then encourage you to waste huge resources testing as many of them as possible to find any really good ones, or spend valuable R&D time trying to figure out which ones are even feasible.

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