Myth: Brainstorming is outdated and slows down ideas in a team

Again and again this myth is haunting the net. The method of brainstorming, developed by Alex Osborne more than 80 years ago, is bullied and hunted through the village as a creative method that only makes things worse.

The main arguments against brainstorming:

  • Quick thinkers get a chance, the slow thinkers get a raw deal.
  • The quiet ones are pushed into the corner by the steamy chatterers.
  • Everyone relies on each other and therefore ideas are prevented.
  • Teams are not creative.
  • It is only used for corporate policy reasons, to have all people somehow involved in the creative process.
  • Two positive aspects are also mentioned: Brainstorming is fun and at least gives the impression of being more productive in a group.

There are even studies that show that brainstorming is useless. On the contrary, it would inhibit creativity. According to these studies, people who brainstorm on their own or control groups who brainstormed on the computer would produce more and better ideas.

That sounds like the classic scientifically-based death blow.

But strangely enough, there are companies that regularly use brainstorming and have been successful in using this method. The question I ask myself is: Why has something been used for 80 years when it has been proven not to work?

First thesis: The method works especially in teams, if you follow certain rules

The more workshops I moderate, the more I notice that brainstorming works especially well when you follow the rules set by Osborn. If you let them slide or even do without them, this can indeed lead to self-promoters in the team getting the upper hand and virtually muzzling the other participants.

But what are these rules?

  1. Criticism of other ideas, suggestions and contributions are not allowed!
  2. Other and subliminal criticism is also a no-go. This is especially true for non-verbal contributions such as eye rolling, waving, ridiculing etc.
  3. Killer phrases are not welcome (see also my blog article HERE).
  4. Thoughts may be expressed freely.
  5. Impossible things should be named.
  6. Build on ideas of others.
  7. Expressing ideas without the “scissors in the head” – everything is allowed.
  8. Be brave.
  9. The bolder and more imaginative, the better.
  10. Strictly adhere to the time limits.

These rules sound self-evident to many and yet participants are quickly tempted to make a derogatory remark about an idea.

Without a moderator, this will not work.

That is why the moderator is especially important here. Since many people have heard of this method, they are tempted to simply get started, since (almost) everyone knows it. Especially here it is very important to set the rules and to insist on their observance. Only then can the points of criticism be eradicated, only then can the more reserved ones be heard.

The more practiced the teams are in brainstorming, the more productive and equal they become.

FIRST CONCLUSION: Only close adherence to the rules guarantees truly open and productive brainstorming sessions.

SECOND THESIS: Teams have more perspectives, therefore they develop more different ideas

It is often – as mentioned – criticised that individuals sometimes develop more and better ideas than teams. This may be true in individual cases. My observation, however, is that people who do not have a clear idea of the problem to be solved or interpret it differently, logically hold back in coming up with ideas or contribute ideas that do not fit the task at hand.

Without a moderator this will not work, again!

Here too, the moderator is clearly called upon. At the beginning he has to make sure that all involved persons have an identical idea of the tasks and that there is a common understanding of the problem. If this is not present, a brainstorming session cannot necessarily have the same effect as the thought games of an individual, who only allows his or her own idea of the problem to flow into the brainstorming process. There are of course no contradictions in terms of understanding the task when thinking alone.

However, if all participants are involved with the same awareness of the problem, they can also bring together their diverse perspectives, experiences and levels of knowledge and thus generate a real surplus of ideas.

SECOND CONCLUSION: Only a clear definition of the problem can produce extensive ideas.

Third thesis: Brainstorming is only suitable for certain problems

Brainstorming was and is a panacea for many. The method is used for a wide variety of tasks and is sometimes even the only known and used method of brainstorming. But brainstorming, like all other remedies, is not universally applicable. Like a burn ointment is hardly ever used for burning eyes, brainstorming is used too often. 

It helps in the first place:

  • For purely linguistic tasks (e.g. when you want to find a new slogan).
  • For general questions and simple problems. The more complex a problem is, the less useful simple brainstorming is.
  • As an introduction to a topic.
  • Especially for formulating goals and statements with symbolic character. This is where brainstorming shows its strength, since in this work goals are named that otherwise often remain beneath the surface.

THIRD CONCLUSION: The use of brainstorming must be targeted and dosed. But then the method develops its full power and is not for nothing the most used creative method for eight decades. Despite all studies!

What does this mean for the idea work?

A moderator is much more than the person who invites to a creative meeting, determines the method and creates a good atmosphere. He is a referee and a driver and moderator, these are the most important qualities on the way to successful idea generation.

In this sense, have fun brainstorming.

Your Armin Schobloch

P.S.: By the way, suitable methods such as brainstorming and 554 other effective methods can be found in the “Great Handbook of Innovation”, on which I worked together with eleven other innovation experts.