Some little known facts about brainstorming

Quirky facts about this hugely popular creativity technique
Francesco | 17.03.16

If you were asked which is the best way to solve a problem or to develop ideas for a new product in a group fashion, chances are that your answer would be 'BRAINSTORMING!'. Indeed, brainstorming is the most popular and widely used group creativity technique: you assemble a group, define the problem and state some easy rules of engagement - quantity over quality, no criticism is allowed, wild ideas are welcome, you can build over others' ideas - and hope that some magic happens.

Despite its popularity, there are some relevant facts about brainstorming that are often ignored.

What is the true meaning of 'brainstorming'?

I have asked this question many times in creativity classes, and students' answer was always something like this: when people gather together to solve a problem, their brains 'clash' together and create a storm of ideas. This metaphor is absolutely fascinating, but it is, well, wrong.

The actual meaning of the word 'brainstorming', as explained by its creator Alex Osborne, is "using the brain to storm a creative proble and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective" (Osborne, 1948). So, stormtroopers instead of a storm of brains. Less fascinating, but correct.

Is brainstorming actually effective?

Well, yes and no! Strictly speaking, it is true that, when using brainstorming, groups typically find one or more solutions to their problem. But if we read the question as "Is doing a brainstorming meeting a smart way to solve a problem?", the answer is that traditional brainstorming is not that effective. Many studies have demonstrated that the productivity of brainstorming groups is systematically lower than individuals working alone, in terms of quantity and quality of generated ideas.

The main reason of this performance loss is called 'production blocking', which is a fancy way to say that if you are paying attention to others explaining their ideas, you cannot generate new ones. And it is also very likely that your next ideas will be influenced by what you have just heard - so farewell to both quantity and originality.

Moreover, brainstorming rules say to avoid criticism and to welcome crazy ideas, but since we are just humans and not robots, it is very difficult to adhere to these rules - and 'evaluation apprehension' is another typical source of productivity loss in classic brainstorming sessions.

You can find more about the flaws of brainstorming here.

Because the idea behind brainstorming, namely that people are more creative when working in a group, is easy to understand and to embrace - so meeting in a group and talking openly seems to be the best way to face a complex problem (unfortunately this idea is false, as reported above).

Moreover, brainstorming leads often to what has been called 'the illusion of productivity': people perceive they have found the best available solution to the problem, and any one person in the group tends to overstate their personal contribution to the creative process.

Lastly, doing a brainstorming meeting can be a pleasant, fun experience: you meet with colleagues and are free to spend some time exploring weird ideas - much better than working on a boring spreadsheet in the office!

So, since classic brainstorming is flawed, what are the alternatives?

Historically, the first competitor to classic brainstorming has been the Nominal Group Technique (NGT). This technique is a sort of 'silent' brainstorming, in which ideas are generated individually and then pooled and shared with the group for selecting the best idea, usually by voting. The NGT effectively addresses the problem of production blocking, but it is often considered as too constraining, since there is no group stimulation or cross-fertilization of ideas (the effect of generating more ideas after being exposed to others' ideas).

Another method is the brainwriting technique, in which each member writes down one or more ideas on a piece of paper and then passes it to the next member, who reads the ideas and adds new ones. This goes on until everybody gets the starting piece of paper back. This is another clever way to reduce productivity loss, but receiving and reading others' ideas can distract and hinder your own contribution - and often, the social pressure of having to write something quickly to not slow down the process will result in a lower quality of ideas.

Electronic brainstorming is a modern alternative to classic brainstorming, which replaces the need of meeting face-to-face by using commonly available technologies (as email or video conference software) or ad-hoc applications. Electronic brainstorming through the use of ad-hoc tools can be an effective way to overcome all or most of the problems of traditional brainstorming. Most tools available however simply try to reproduce a face-to-face brainstorming session, keeping (or amplifying!) most of its flaws - such as many people working at the same time on a shared screen, lack of anonymity, information overload, and so on.

The Neonce method for better brainstorming

The Neonce brainstorming method is an evolved technique for conducting structured brainstorming. It’s based on a three stage process, each containing both a divergent and a convergent phase. First, members generate ideas individually (as in the NGT), and share to the whole group only their best ideas, to avoid information overload. Second, members are invited to refine the shared ideas, generate new ones, and select the best ideas to move to the final stage, again individually (incubation phase).

Finally, members have to select the best idea(s), usually by voting or by using the Scroop technique.

This way, there is no more production blocking due to being distracted by other people speaking/writing, cross-fertilization of ideas is possible and members are required to reflect on their and others' ideas, since some focusing is great to make sense and crystallise ideas (incubation). Moreover, all the process can be anonymous, so evaluation apprehension is reduced and the loudest voices in the room have no effect.

Ready to improve your brainstorming sessions? Try the Neonce web application, our online tool for running improved brainstorming sessions. It's free, and you can find it here!

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