Perhaps the idea of “brainstorming” doesn’t make any sense at all

It would seem logical that better ideas could be generated in a group as opposed to simply by individuals — more perspectives and viewpoints, and an inherent vetting process in real-time. But then again, maybe that’s not true:

But no study has proven that brainstorming works well, even though it has been the go-to method for idea generation since 1953.

The New Yorker has attacked the idea too, featuring this study prominently, although some of the ideas therein have been debunked by other writers/scholars. Here’s a key passage from the rebuke that explains once again that it’s all really about context:

More importantly, he’s asking the wrong question. There is no singular best template for group creativity. When I’m hired to advise teams, the first thing I do is study the culture of the team. My advice will be based on who they are and what will work for them, not on an abstract set of principles. Just as there isn’t a best template for group morale, or teamwork, or group anything. Is there a singular best template for good writing? For being a good person? A singular template denies how divergent individuals, teams and cultures are. Nemeth’s data shows a wide disparity between French and American success at brainstorming: clearly culture does matter.

This is all interesting stuff, because I’d say two things you hear way too often in American offices (aside from, you know, acronyms) are terms like “brainstorming session” and/or “deep dive.” Sometimes it feels like managers assume that if you get a bunch of people in a room together and start riffing with no criticism allowed (at that moment), magic is going to happen. It certainly could happen, but there are contextual elements to take into account: first of all, human focus wanes throughout the day and second of all, being in-office with people you already know could potentially stifle creativity. Rather, go off the grid for a hot second. Shift the narrative around brainstorming; if people view it as a meeting — a blocked-off time on their Outlook — they may not be prone to actual brainstorming. They may be prone to kinda just phoning it in.

The flip side idea is called “brainswarming.” It’s detailed pretty well here:

In this strategy, the group writes down their ideas instead of talks about it. The goal is written at the top and the resources you have to achieve that goal is at the bottom.

The people in the group are asked to share their ideas called “interactions” in the space between the goal and resources.

According to McCaffrey, brainswarming can produce 115 ideas per 15 minutes versus 100 ideas per hour in a brainstorm session.

The structure of these meetings/interactions bears a slight resemblance to the idea of “scrum teams.” I like the broader idea, though — it’s surprisingly rare when people actually link ideas, objectives and resources (oftentimes because the objectives aren’t always clear for positions that aren’t revenue-facing). Also, shifting the medium to writing is important too; some people, be it because they’re shy or because they prefer writing to speaking or because they’re intelligent and don’t want to get caught in buzzword crossfire, would prefer to simply write down their ideas and then pin them up somewhere, or something like that (I’ve seen that done too). There’s an inherent vetting process there too, so if people walk around and “check mark” the cool ideas, then if you’re a shy person and your Post-It note with your idea has eight check marks, you feel a bit more confident defending the idea when it becomes a discussion. More on that here:

With brainswarming, the ideas of introverts aren’t as likely to languish like in traditional conversations, where extroverts tend to grab the floor. All ideas stand on equal footing, a single Post-It Note placed on the board.

This is all important because while a large percentage of American business workers are essentially foot soldiers (which is fine, because every amazing army in world history had amazing foot soldiers), businesses that don’t innovate and move forward — or at least shift their thinking/ideas around their key products — ultimately die out. So new ideas/big ideas/good ideas/just f’n ideas in general need to come from somewhere. The de facto move for generations (2-3 at this point) has been “the brainstorm,” but maybe we need to be re-thinking that. This is especially true if you believe that the next two major generations of the workforce are going to value authenticity more than anything. Brainstorming is, essentially (viewed pessimistically), forced creative behavior. It’s totally inorganic and yes, extroverts will dominate a traditional session. A different approach — be it brainswarming or even simple “Big Idea Boxes” scattered throughout your space — could feel more organic and encourage contributions from all types of people. Again, it goes back to context around the organization and the teams in question, but generally I’d agree that the old-school version of “brainstorming” has no real place in most offices of 2014. (Also, have you ever sat in a “brainstorming” session whereby everyone essentially just repeats the first observation in their own words? Didn’t it remind you of classes in college with mandatory participation scores, where everyone raises their hand and essentially repeats the thing said two observations ago? That doesn’t seem like a way to foster business growth, right?)


Ted Bauer