Three Reasons Brainstorming Doesn’t Work – And What You Can Do About It

I’ve written here before that I don’t think brainstorming works. My opinion is based on 20+ years of experience running groups whose job it was to generate ideas. It didn’t matter if we were working on ideas for new products or how to advertise them, just getting in a room tossing out crazy ideas without a filter and writing them all down didn’t work. I always said there were two reasons why, but after reading a recent book on group collaboration, which details the past two decades of academic research, I found many more.

First, is that filtering has to be done at some point by some one, and it turns out that having a filter in the kinds of ideas you are trying to generate actually helps you generate better ideas – and more of them. So, start out your group letting everyone know that your goal is to generate as many unique and valuable ideas as possible.

Second – okay, maybe right now you are thinking, “wait, brainstorming is a crazy, no-bad-ideas, free-for-all, right?” – turns out no. You want the environment to be safe and you do not want people block the flow, but the goal is not a long list of everything that comes to mind. Individuals are better at making lists. Groups are better at conversations, and if you follow a few rules from improv theatre about how to keep a conversation going, then you can tap into the power of group creativity.

Third, is that almost everything that we assume about creativity, ideas and the people who have it/them is wrong. We love the story of the eureka moment and the lone inventor struggling away until his breakthrough. The problem is that when you dig into the story – and many academics have done this over the past two decades – a very different story emerges. It is a story of networks of people working and sharing ideas, making simultaneous discoveries and inching innovations along bit by bit. The true eurekas are so rare as to be non-existent. Who gets the credit has more to do with power than with true creative genius.

It turns out that all of us are better than one of us. And this turns out to be the problem in creative fields. Creative fields love to celebrate their geniuses. We put them in magazine covers. We tell and retell their stories. We write books and make movies about them. But it’s just not true.

I remember reading this story about a tower a group of people were building that would reach up to the heavens. God looked down and said, “if they speak with one voice (a common language), nothing will be impossible for them.” Now, I’m not advocating building towers to the sky, but when you are needing to develop ideas, a group of people, in a room having a conversation – preferably facilitated by someone who knows how – is a good thing. And not just good, but a “nothing is impossible” kind of good thing.

What are some good brainstorming alternatives you’ve found? Hop over to my Google+ page to discuss.