Tools of Creativity

Part 3 — Brainstorming

The Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), defines “brainstorm” as follows:

brainstorm (n.)
 “brilliant idea, mental excitement, fit of mental application,” 1849, from brain (n.) + figurative use of storm (n.). As a verb, recorded from 1920s.

This, and almost all other sources define brainstorm in a positive sense. A brainstorm, as defined above, is a brilliant idea, a time of mental excitement, and/or a fit of mental application.

As you can see, above, brainstorm, used as a noun — i.e. “he had a brainstorm and came up with a brilliant idea” — has been in use since 1849. Used as a verb — i.e. “let’s brainstorm to find a solution”, the word has been in use since the 1920s. Of course, the very idea group discussion, to find a solution to a problem, is also, not by any means, new.

Brainstorming, in its modern sense and usage, as a means of producing creative ideas, was popularised, and formalised in 1948, by Alex Faickney Osborn, in his book, Your Creative Power. Osborn was an advertising executive, writer, and student of creativity. He had been developing methods for creative problem solving, and applying them in his advertising company (The BDO Advertising Agency), since the late-1930s.

Osborn was deeply frustrated by existing creativity, problem-solving, and idea-generation methods of his day. He felt that the few methodologies in use, did not produce enough good, original ideas — and did it too slowly. Osborn came to the conclusion that groups of people were capable of greater creativity than individuals working solo.

Osborn defined brainstorming as follows:

Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.

Over the past decades, brainstorming has been studied, praised, criticised, used, modified, refined, and adapted, probably more than any other creativity/thought/problem-solving tool. Brainstorming reached the peak of its corporate popularity during the 1980s & 90s, but more recently, it seems to have fallen from favour to some extent.

For me, this brings up the question: 
“If brainstorming is so well established as a positive concept and methodology, why is it so seldom used, and so often pooh-poohed in 21st century, Western society?”

The answer to this question, gleaned from quite a bit of research, is actually quite simple. For the most part, brainstorming was/is often, incorrectly used. This answer matches much of my own experience of brainstorming sessions in both corporate and non-profit environments.

As with most business fads, fashions, and trends, brainstorming was/is generally used because it’s “the thing to do”. The people leading these intended brainstorming sessions, almost always, have had no training, or personal experience of correct use of brainstorming. Their superiors basically just told them to run a brainstorming session for one purpose or another — and so they do.

The fact is, brainstorming, if used correctly, can be an incredibly powerful and effective tool for creative problem solving, solution finding, etc. With that in mind, here are the basics of brainstorming.

  1. Make the group as diverse as possible. Homogeneous groups will (mostly) only come up with homogeneous ideas. The best brainstorming groups will have people with mixed skill-sets, personalities, backgrounds, training, etc.
  2. Focus on a single problem. Brainstorming is designed to be effective in producing creative ideas around a single subject. Losing this singular focus, is one of the primary reasons for brainstorming failure. If further problems come up during brainstorming, they should be noted (separately), ignored, and then dealt with at another time.
  3. Go for quantity. The purpose of a brainstorming session is not to find a single solution, but to generate many creative ideas that will hopefully, lead to a solution. Let me say that again. The purpose of brainstorming is not to find a solution, but to find many ideas that can lead to a solution.
  4. Defer all judgement. This is vital. During the brainstorming session, every idea must be treated as equal to every other idea. Any bias, or criticism of ideas during brainstorming, will skew, or even halt the flow of “different” ideas. All analysis of ideas happens later, outside of the brainstorming session. As soon as anyone in the group feels that their idea/s are being received negatively, they, and others, are likely to shut down. Remember, the only goal of brainstorming, is ideas — lots of ideas.
  5. Welcome wild ideas. While a wild idea, itself, may not be a viable solution, it generates two positives. Firstly, an idea that may, at first seem wild, may turn out to be exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that was needed. Secondly, the freedom to put forward outrageous ideas, encourages further out-of-the-box thinking by participants, thus increasing the chances of finding one, or more ideas that will lead to creative solutions.
  6. Combine and improve ideas. Osborn stated this principle as 1+1=3. One of the advantages of group thinking, is that one person’s idea can act as inspiration for another person’s idea. Thus one persons wild suggestion, could be the spark that results in a solution — or at least a step toward one. This is one of the benefits of working in a group, often stated as the result being greater than the sum of the parts.

Brainstorming is potentially, an incredibly powerful tool for creative ideation. However, like most tools, the best results come only with proper use, and of course, practise, practise, practise …

As I briefly mentioned earlier, many variations, and methods of brainstorming have been developed over the years. I’ll include some links at the end for information on some of those, but I’m not going to go into them here. As with most things, it pays to master the basics of brainstorming, before trying the variations.

Another creative benefit of brainstorming, is that it is a group/communal activity. It is widely recognised that creativity works best in groups, even if the final expression is individual. Solo music stars may get all the glory, but their creativity actually happens within a group. Groups work, creatively.

Well, although this is a bit shorter than usual (you can thank me in the comments), I’m going to tie things up right here.

The methods for effective use of brainstorming, like the methods for using a hammer, are simple. However, in both instances, those methods must be applied strictly if one is to get the desired results.

Over these past three weeks, I’ve purposely presented just these three creative tools for thought. My reason is that they are not only powerful tools individually, but that they work brilliantly together.

Brainstorming harnesses the power of the communal mind to formulate creative ideas, and in so doing builds community, and creativity.

Mind Maps, of course, are a wonderful tool for recording the product of a brainstorming session, as they provide a visual, organised, representation of the session. At the same time, the mind mapped ideas, in association with each other, provide prompts for further brainstorming ideas.

You may also have noticed that brainstorming, if correctly used, promotes lateral thinking — particularly by encouraging high volumes of ideas, and wild ideas — within both individual and group minds.

I hope that you will find these thought tools helpful in developing your creativity, whatever form it may take.

As usual, I’d love to hear your responses, feedback, critiques, etc. Please do recommend (click on the heart), share, and/or like on Facebook. Please also feel free to check out more of my work — written, photographic, and otherwise artistic — on my RobinB Creative Facebook page.