Why can't I brainstorm?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

In 1953, advertising executive Alex Osborn was frustrated and felt that the people around him weren’t generating enough creative ideas. In his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking, Osborn introduced the concept of brainstorming and envisioned a world where groups of people would work together “to storm a problem.” He laid out 4 steps that were necessary for proper brainstorming:

1. Defer judgement – allow people to offer ideas that aren’t judged immediately (there are no bad ideas)

2. Quantity over quality – it’s better to come up with many lukewarm ideas, than a few, good ideas

3. Build on the ideas of others – don’t negate someone’s ideas, build on them (yes..and)

4. Wow ideas are preferred – the crazier the better

The real question is – did Osborn’s method work?

Only a few years later in 1958, Donald Taylor did a study at Yale University to discover whether or not groups were more effective at brainstorming then individuals working independently. Multiple studies provided the same results - that individuals working alone generated more creative ideas, often up to 85% better ones than large groups. The question then remains - why are people still using it? First and foremost, it’s easy and cheap. It’s more fun than working individually and it’s become the standard used in schools and businesses. Nevertheless, there are three key reasons that brainstorming doesn’t work.

1. It’s unproductive – in a group setting, one person speaks and the rest of the group sits and listens. It’s much more productive for individual or pairs to work together and maximize the allotted time.

2. Brainstorming participants aren’t engaged – it’s hard to focus when you’re trying to come up with an idea and someone else wants to share their idea

3. It breeds competition- in larger settings, people often try to undermine one other and come up with better ideas than their peers

Osborn wanted people to just share all random ideas that came to their head, without being judged. He felt that the more ideas that were shared, the more likely a good one would be produced. In reality though, in large settings, people often felt inhibited to share their true thoughts because they’re worried about being judged. We also know that there is no benefit to seeing a lot of random irrelevant ideas being placed on a white board.

SIT allows us to generate good ideas, as well as discard the irrelevant ideas quickly. It helps us to save time and energy in a way that utilizes the talent of the individual contributor. It understands that constraints are necessary for creativity and are a key factor in reaching desired results. Brainstorming might be the “in” thing to do, but in this case, following the trend won’t get you very far.

*The content of this blog is based on Drew Boyd’s podcast ‘Innovation inside the Box.’

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