Possibly no other tool of collaborative creativity has been as misunderstood or misused as brainstorming. Developed by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1940s as a way to enhance his employees’ creative output, the technique has taken on a mystique in the business world that has outpaced its effective use. Often, the word “brainstorming” is thrown about with no understanding of its ground rules.
Here are four commonly held myths about brainstorming that can actually dry up idea-generation efforts, as well as a suggested counter-belief to help you set the stage for productive brainstorming.
Myth #1: “It’s better to state a brainstorming challenge loosely, so participants don’t feel creatively constricted.”
Reality: Ambiguity in the challenge-framing stage does not enhance creativity during the brainstorming stage—it leads to ideas that don’t provide solutions to the challenge at hand. Jeffery Baumgartner, founder of the Belgian innovation software developer and consulting firm Bwiti bvba, advises that “It is very important to (articulate) the challenge in such a way as to indicate the kind of ideas you want, while not making the challenge so restrictive that the brainstormers cannot get creative.”
The late Andy Van Gundy, a professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma for many years, wrote a very helpful guide on this topic, “The Care and Feeding of Strategic Innovation Challenges.”
Counter-Belief for Myth #1: “We want to provide a clear, precise challenge statement so our brainstormers will know where to direct their creative energy.”
Myth #2: “Only professionals—our marketing/design/copywriting/product development team—should be involved in this brainstorming session.”
Reality: While including subject matter experts on a brainstorm team is important, fresh ideas require fresh perspectives. Psychology professor Keith Sawyer describes the array of influences that can influence the development of a creative breakthrough as a “collaborative web,” whose members are typically diverse in expertise and interests. Each member of a collaborative web contributes a new understanding of the challenge at hand.
To develop an in-house collaborative web, invite participants from all over your organization to brainstorming sessions—from the kid in the mailroom you know likes to tinker in his garage to the accountant, whose knowledge of funding sources might prove invaluable. If you’re pressed for time or have orders to only draw on the time of your “professional” creatives, try a suggestion made by learning consultant Kevin Eikenberry and have the brainstorming group imagine the challenge from the perspectives of different internal and external groups.
Counter-belief to Myth #2: “We will invite anyone to the session who demonstrates a stake or an interest in the topic of the challenge.”
Myth #3: “We don’t want to taint brainstormers’ imaginations by telling them too much about the challenge beforehand.”
Reality: This is a well-intentioned myth, drawing on faith in the group’s synergy to generate great ideas, but it simply isn’t true. According to Sawyer, “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Provide the challenge statement to brainstormers before a session, and assign them homework: to come to the session with 10, 15, or 20 good ideas, which will be evaluated on their creative potential at the session. This often “primes the pump” for brainstormers, who arrive at the session with their minds already in high gear, and allows the group to do something that brainstorming groups tend to do very well—evaluate and expand on existing ideas.
Counter-belief to Myth #3: “We will provide participants with an adequate overview of the challenge and require them to bring ideas to the brainstorming session for discussion.”
Myth #4: “Brainstorming is a group conversation designed to elicit great ideas.”
Reality: Given brainstorming’s roots in the advertising industry, it’s easy to see how this myth got started. However, there is value in getting away from verbal brainstorming formats. From a group dynamics standpoint, facilitators must always be mindful of the potential for production blocking, where the energy needed to listen to others’ ideas blocks the individual’s flow of ideas or the tendency of dominant group members to out-shout quieter brainstormers. From a practical perspective, not all challenges are adequately explored by talk alone.
Baumgartner and others are proponents of what is known as visual brainstorming, an approach in which a brainstorming group breaks into smaller sub-groups, who build models, draw pictures, or create role plays to test new approaches to the challenge. Later, the entire group reconvenes, discusses their creations and pools the best ideas generated from each iteration.
Counter-belief for Myth #4: Brainstorming can involve a great conversation, building a great model, sketching a great mindmap, or performing a great role play—anything that helps represent the challenge and its possible solution in innovative ways.”