There is a growing firestorm regarding the effectiveness, or not, of brainstorming. This is fueled by psychological research over the past decade that suggests individuals working alone will outperform a group using the brainstorming technique.
There are occasions when brainstorming has worked extremely well such as when the NASA team at Mission Control brainstormed a solution to the CO2 problem aboard Apollo 13 or when innovation teams conceive breakthrough products, relying heavily on the technique (I have personally observed this). However, I would not recommend group brainstorming for writing computer code, making Supreme Court decisions, or writing poetry.
Brief Historical Context
When brainstorming first became popular in the ’50s and ’60’s, corporations were not very friendly to new ideas (see Mad Men). It was necessary to have a process that protected ideas and the people who offered them. Organizations were experimenting with ways to tap into their creative potential and not interfere with the efficient daily operations of the enterprise. This was new territory and viewed as a very tricky business.
One article during this time recommended only brainstorming one day a week, so your brain could recover for the next session. Another article made a case for including women in a brainstorming session, versus “Men Only”, the norm of the day. When it comes to tapping into one’s creative potential, these were primitive times.
Today brainstorming is a tool to think differently. While once limited mostly to the domain of creative-types with creative missions (i.e. advertising), it has become a reliable technique to identify new possibilities beyond the obvious in virtually every business domain from the boardroom to the factory floor. But, the point is not whether or not you call it brainstorming when you want to think differently.
The Purpose Then and Now: Applied Imagination
Advertising legend Alex Osborn (BBD & Osborn) collaborated with Sid Parnes on the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem-Solving process that has brainstorming embedded in each of its phases (before “brainstorming” was coined by Osborn, he called them “thinking up” sessions). The point was never to champion the tool of brainstorming, but instead, to encourage everyone to apply MORE of his or her imagination to create novel new value. This, of course, could be done as an individual or in teams. Neither Osborn nor Parnes would care what you called it if the process yielded an inspiration of new value for you and, ideally, others.
In developing the Structure of the Intellect, J.P. Guilford identified divergent thinking as an important skill for creativity. Divergent thinking is when an individual or team generates a “free flow” of many ideas with the objective of making new, unexpected connections that address a problem/challenge. This was Osborn’s and Parnes’ intent for brainstorming; they knew that generating a greater quantity of ideas will yield a higher quality of creative ones.
Without challenging the validity of the research that sparked this query on the effectiveness of brainstorming, I believe it is worth reframing this conversation as it relates to business to one where we identify the best ways to unleash the creativity of an individual, team, and organization – as needed and “on-demand” for the purpose of innovative growth.
In 2030 we will not be having a conversation about how to optimize your approach to brainstorming. The conversation will be about your preferred meditation trances, brain implant chips, targeted drugs, and smartphone apps to induce a creative state. So, enjoy a simple brainstorming session, while you can.