Brainstorm or Braindrain?

A post by Mark McGuinness, of Lateral Action, laying out the case for and against Brainstorming made me realize why I cringe whenever I hear the term.

The name for the technique advanced by Alex Osborn in his 1963 book Applied Imagination is used — or make that misused– too often today. Can you think of any kind of problem solving situaion in recent years where people haven’t said “why don’t we brainstorm a bit on this?”  What they really mean is let’s discuss it.

Brainstorming is a technique that’s supposed to generate a large volume of new ideas. That’s it, pure and simple. To do it, brainstorming leaders, most of whom are project managers or other linear thinkers, use several formal methods to generate ideas rapidly.

These leaders often value step-by-step processes. This industrializes creative thinking, turning it into a mass production process based on efficiency. The result might provide a wonderful Key Performance Indicator, i.e “we generated  1,000 ideas in one day!” but for utility is generally useless.  The great majority of those ideas are conventional and derivative,  while the few that may have some worth are usually lost in the onslaught.

Also, much brainstorming, although supposedly aimed at freeing the mind from convention, sometimes has the opposite effect because it works best for people with a bent toward collaborative and verbal ideation leaps.

Many others use different creativity processes such as visualization, combination thinking,  or mindroaming, that aren’t allowed in the mechanized formal processes that often govern brainstorming session. When it’s “their turn” to throw out an idea, their mind may be far, far away, triggered by some sensual observation that is anything but verbal. Suddenly, they are yanked back from real ideation to a task, and the idea nugget often vaporizes.

Brainstorming’s namesake — real storms — produce vast amounts of rain. And in the physical world, most of that rain goes right down the drain. There’s too much all at once and the collection systems can’t handle it all. Similarly, most of the results of brainstorms are also wasted.

So am I saying that brainstorming is stupid? Of course not. Led by a softer hand and focused by a challenge or problem, it can be a good method to start people on entering the state to create. It’s a warm-up that can force people out of routine thinking ruts.

But brainstorming by itself is only a beginning, an exercise to ready a group for real creativity. And that happens with other tools.


3 Responses to Brainstorm or Braindrain?

  1. PM Hut says:

    Thanks for the link, I have actually read the post and commented.

    I have to say that I’m not really against it, but I don’t like it. In some certain cases a brainstorming session can be beneficial to a project. In most cases it’s just a waste of time. That’s my opinion.

  2. Steve says:

    I agree. Focused on a clearly understood problem and followed up with good evaluation techniques brainstorming can be an effective step in a broader process.

    Where the participants are really engaged and understand the process end-to-end they will become more effective at brainstorming.

    I’d don’t quite buy into the quantity is better than quality argument when it comes to brainstorming. I believe the answer is somewhere in the middle and that it is possible to get quality when sessions are well focused.

  3. Taylan says:

    Interesting post. I am rather skeptical of any study that claims to have measured the number of high quality ideas, which is a highly subjective merit itself.

    I also have concerns about overly structured creative thought processes. Just as the spell check feature in MS Word may be reducing people’s unaided spelling ability over time, over-reliance on techniques such as brainstorming might be diminishing our intuitive idea generation capabilities.

    Correct me if I’m wrong: creativity –> right hemisphere, analytical thinking –> left hemisphere. It’s not difficult to see structure inhibiting creativity, given our general predisposition toward left hemisphere dominance.

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