Why brainstorming is bad for creativity

Many people have terrible experiences with brainstorming. There are many ways to screw up a brainstorm, and even if you take all brainstorm-rules into account, the results can be quite underwhelming.

There are at least three reasons why traditional brainstorming is actually bad for creativity.

You have to wait your turn
Remembering what you were going to say is not easy when you’re listening to others sharing their ideas. Chances are you’ll have forgotten your brilliant idea by the time you finally get to speak. Even worse, the entire time you’re trying to listen while remembering your own idea, you won’t be able to generate new ideas. The classical brainstorm session limits the amount of ideas that can be generated in a set amount of time. The more people you add to a brainstorm-group, the fewer ideas will be generated per participant per hour.

Creativity benefits from quantity. The more ideas you generate, the more likely it is that you’ll stumble upon a brilliant insight. Anything that slows down the idea generation therefore is bad for creativity.

The setting also makes sure that ego’s will start to rear their ugly heads. Managers and the more audacious employees will soon start to dominate the group. At the same time, modest and shy colleagues are not heard, even though they might have brilliant ideas.

Of course there is an obvious solution to these problems: quiet thinking sessions. First people write down their ideas (as much of them as possible) individually or in duos. Then every participant shares their ideas in the group. This doesn’t mean the ideas will be discussed of course, for the ideation phase is no place for criticism. Ideas can be built upon however and might be improved or reshaped into a new idea.

No thinking techniques.
In brainstorm sessions wacky ideas are encouraged and criticism is forbidden. However, just shouting whatever comes up and postponing your judgement is not going to cut it. It’s not enough. You need to deliberately force your brain on a side track. Force yourself to look at the challenge from a different angle, approach the situation from an illogical point and embrace the bizarre. Only with thinking techniques will you get past boring, mediocre ideas and will you find truly remarkable and original ideas.

Add thinking techniques to the session to deliberately break free from fixed thinking patterns. Escape assumptions, exaggerate values, use random input and embrace the bizarre.

No structure
Did I mention people shouting ideas in a disorderly fashion? Brainstorms often lack structure and this weakens the output immensely. Discussions might arise, but even if you manage to keep that from happening, a lack of structure will cause brainstorms to be highly unproductive. A dragging meeting with very little to show for is every manager’s worst nightmare.

Many people will tell you that chaos and a lack of rules will automatically lead to creative ideas. Unfortunately few people know that creativity actually needs structure. It needs rules and it needs time limits.

If you want to spend your time wisely, you need to bring structure to your ideation session. Make sure you have a sharp focus and inspiring challenges. Also plan for a ‘braindump’ (collecting all the ‘old’ existing ideas), several fitting thinking techniques (including a short introduction and explanation) with a set time for each step, a few breaks (perfect opportunities to shuffle the group around) and time to share ideas. Don’t allow for discussion and criticism. Keep an eye on the time and keep everybody on schedule. Allow only a set amount of time per ideation round to maintain a healthy amount of pressure and to prevent people from getting bored.

In short: although the average brainstorm limits the number of ideas, lacks thinking techniques and misses a proper structure, your thinking sessions can easily be saved by quiet ideation, the use of several different thinking techniques and a well structured program.

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Flickr Creative Commons Image via The_Warfield.

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