Why ordinary brainstorming doesn’t work

Recently there have been several prominent articles published that disparage brainstorming, making the claim that brainstorming is a failed corporate experiment … that it doesn’t work. Most recently and perhaps most notable “The brainstorming myth” from The New Yorker (January 27, 2012). This article in particular caught my attention because it provided a fair bit of evidence to support the argument that brainstorming doesn’t work, but it failed in one significant way. It didn’t tell you why. Why doesn’t brainstorming work?

This was the topic of the recent Lunch & Learn hosted by Daedalus and Echo Strategies on March 20, 2012. Our goal was to articulate for our participants why brainstorming doesn’t work and to provide a sampling of idea generation tools that do.

So, why doesn’t brainstorming work? Let’s dive right in.

Stop for a moment. Re-read my last sentence and you’ll see the first reason why brainstorming doesn’t work. How often have you attended a brainstorming session in which you were seated around a table and told, “We’re going to brainstorm on xyz. Let’s go!” Most corporate brainstorming sessions are too unstructured and poorly prepared. Deciding on a location, a topic, and arranging a catered lunch is not preparation! These sessions have no guidelines, no true moderator, and no introduction to the problem at hand. I love this cartoon – it clearly illustrates what happens when the organizers don’t prepare for the session.

The same corporations who fail to prepare for a brainstorming session would never dream of bringing in people for a focus group without at least a moderator and a discussion guide. Yet these sessions are quite similar. You are asking a group of people to help you understand a problem and move you towards a solution.

Why else doesn’t brainstorming work?

Marissa Ann Mayer, Google’s VP of Search Products and User Experience, understands why. She wrote, “Creativity realized in the balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change.” As beautiful as this picture is, it exemplifies the problem Ms. Mayer identified. Most corporate brainstorming sessions tell their participants “the sky is the limit” (the blue sky problem). The problem is two-fold. First, in reality there will always be constraints to the solution for any given problem. You cannot design a new paperclip out of concrete and charge $1 per clip … not if you want a successful paperclip. Second, creativity does not thrive in a vacuum, it thrives on constraints. Psychological research has borne this out. Google creativity and constraints if you want to explore the connections in more detail, or check out this book.

Creativity also thrives on diversity, but too often corporate brainstorming sessions invite homogeneous participants – people from the same department, with the same skills, and the same experiences. Steve Jobs famously talked about connecting the dots. One of my favorite quotes of his is, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” Again, research has shown that individuals with more diverse experiences and more diverse social networks tend to be more creative and innovative than their more uniform peers. Martin Ruef, Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found this to be true among Stanford alumni who had started a new business. Those with more diverse social networks had introduced more new products and services; had more patent activity; and had developed more new production, distribution, or marketing processes.

Not only is this true of individuals, it is also true of groups. Brainstorming sessions need to include participants from diverse departments across a company. A review of problems posted and solved at InnoCentive, a crowd-sourcing website, has shown that a remarkable number of problems are solved by those with peripheral expertise to the problem posted. Chemists solve molecular biology problems. Molecular biologists solve chemistry problems. Why? These problem solvers were close enough to the field of study to understand the problem presented, but not so close that they ran into the same roadblocks as the experts in the field.

So you need to have a diverse group in your session. But, there are a couple of other pitfalls directly tied to your participants that can cause your brainstorming session to fail. The first of these I like to call the Silverback problem. Brainstorming sessions that lack the guidance of a skilled moderator fall prey to dominant personalities that absolutely must have their voices heard; they end up drowning out those quieter voices. This is why focus groups are always guided by a moderator – it’s the moderator’s job to achieve a balance of voices to make sure that everyone feels empowered to participate and be heard.

Second, brainstorming sessions can easily fall prey to hidden agendas. Imagine that you lead a department of hard working people, and an idea is voiced that might result in a budget cut for your department, or more work for an already overworked team. Too often the reaction is, “That idea is bad for me … how do I kill it?” So now the participant starts to look for ways to discredit that idea, like “We tried that before” or “We’ve always done it this way.”

The final problem that I’d like to address is what happens at the end of the brainstorming session. How often have you walked out of the session, leaving behind a room that looks like this?

You’ve written ideas on post-it notes until your hand cramps. The organizers say, “thank you for your time; we’ve had an amazingly productive session and you are dismissed.” But what happens to all of those carefully filled out post-it notes and their ideas?

There is no convergence of ideas into actionable solutions. Ideally your participants, or at least the organizers of the session, will take time at the end of the day to review and process the ideas that were generated.

So what does work?

Brainstorming is just one example of an idea generation tool. Google idea generation tools and you’ll find dozens of other tools. The most effective of these solve many of the problems above.

At Daedalus, we recently facilitated an all day idea generation session for one of our clients. Our clients picked a venue, identified participants, and set up a catered lunch (which was delish). Our preparation at Daedalus was more intense. During the course of several meetings with the client, we prepared a structured agenda for the day. Our agenda not only included an introduction to the topic of the session and its goals, but we also included time to hold a detailed interactive discussion between the participants and the organizers regarding the opportunities the topic presented to the company.

A week before the session we asked invited participants to complete a homework assignment intended to make them think about how the topic of the session was already affecting their roles and work processes in the company and how they envisioned those roles and processes evolving. Before the session, we analyzed the responses and then used the results to stimulate further conversation during the session.

Beforehand, we also socially engineered the table assignments for the day to increase the diversity within each small working group. During the session, those small working groups collaborated on design thinking exercises that we had prepared and on the main activity of the day, which was a structured 6 Thinking Hats idea generation session.

At the end of each step of the 6 Thinking Hats, we had also scheduled time for a Votes and Boats discussion. Boats is a process in which each working group is asked to organize their post-it notes into categories of ideas. For Votes, each participant is given a certain number of red dot stickers and asked to place those stickers on the ideas that they most liked.

Finally, at the end of the session, Daedalus worked with representatives of the client who had participated in the session to further review and process the ideas generated before providing a Road Map suggesting how to implement the ideas generated for the client.

We have found that this process works particularly well, especially for participants who are not accustomed to idea generation. Although idea generation is second nature to our company, allowing success with a colder start, we still use many of these knowledge driven innovation principles within our own idea generation sessions.

Carolynn Johnson