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The worst tool for idea generation?

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Problem Solving

Alex Osborn was the real life Don Draper.

He co-founded the advertising agency BBDO—the inspiration behind the fictional Sterling Cooper agency in Mad Men, one of my all-time favorite shows.

In the 1930s, Osborn invented a practice at BBDO to boost creativity. The goal was to generate ideas for client campaigns by tapping into the collective imagination of the agency executives.

He called the practice “brainstorming.” According to Osborn, brainstorming means “using the brain to storm a creative problem . . . in commando fashion, each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.”

The term later migrated out of advertising into virtually every organization. People across the globe now gather around in fluorescent-lit conference rooms, with lukewarm coffee strewn around, to generate ideas and explore options.

But there’s a problem with brainstorming.

It doesn’t work.

As organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in the Harvard Business Review, “After six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently.” In fact, a meta-analytic review—which combined the results of previous research on brainstorming—showed that brainstorming undermines creativity.

In other words, brainstorming is how good ideas die.

How can that be? A few powerful individuals often dominate the conversation and “storm” everyone with their ideas, leaving no room for others to emerge. Those early ideas—which tend to be mediocre—then serve as anchors for the ideas that follow and pull everyone down.

What’s more, no one’s anonymous in a brainstorming session. Ideas come with attribution, which means the process gets political. People judge the ideas based on who’s talking—rather than the idea itself. And when people worry about being judged by others—particularly by those higher up the ladder—they tend to self-censor ideas that could ignite a breakthrough.

Here are four ways that you can make brainstorming more effective:

  1. Prepare in advance. Draft an agenda, include prompts to tee up the discussion, and require your team to generate ideas on their own in advance. This gets people thinking about the problem on their own and allows their subconscious to mull things over, connect dots, and make associations.
  2. Require anonymous submissions. Ask people to submit ideas anonymously before the session begins. This practice hides the identity of the creator, eliminating politics from the process. It also encourages a greater diversity of ideas since it requires people to create their own ideas before being influenced by others.
  3. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation. Generate ideas first before evaluating and eliminating them. If you cut the generation process short—if you immediately begin to critique and judge—you’ll undermine creativity. Encourage team members to combine and build on each other’s ideas with a “Yes and” and “We can if” mindset (as opposed to “No because” or “We can’t because”). Go for quantity—the more ideas, the better.
  4. Encourage divergent thinking. During idea generation, set aside what’s possible, what’s doable, and what’s affordable. All ideas—no matter how unreasonable—should be welcome.

To paraphrase Osborn, it’s easier to tone down an unreasonable idea than to create a new one.

P.S. Another key to generating breakthrough ideas is moonshot thinking. In my keynotes to industry-leading organizations, I share strategies for reimagining the status quo with moonshot thinking.

My speaking fees will increase significantly in the new year. If you’re interested in learning how you can define the future of your industry and remain at the forefront of change, submit a booking request before December 31st at this link.

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