Brainstorming Does Not Work
Kevin Ashton

I take issue with the idea that brainstorming doesn’t work. The assumption is that brainstorming is a system for being more productive, and that as such, it is inefficient. Studies show how the ideas generated in groups are poor, but what does that mean? Aside from the question of how the quality of ideas is measured, to think of brainstorming as an efficient system for moving business forward is to apply the wrong measuring tools. It’s a very quantitative way of thinking, denying the more qualitative, often intangible, benefits of the concept, as well as disregarding some key ingredients for its so-called success. Perhaps it’s time to look at this the other way around.

To begin with, brainstorming as a business technique is merely a corporatization of the process that creative workers go through all the time. You work on something, you get stuck, you go hang out with your artist friends or your geek friends or your writer friends, and over a glass of wine or a beer you talk about your problem. Everyone throws around a lot of crazy ideas, and you go home and sleep on it, and then the next day you wake up and you know exactly what to do, where to go next. There are definite leaps involved, interspersed with the requisite intermediary steps. The one thing that never happens in the creative process is a constant plod, step by step, from start to finish. It should be more like clambering over rocks: sometimes you step from one point to another, sometimes you climb laboriously over a problem — and sometimes, you can simply jump across, flying effortlessly from one place to another, because of that aha moment, when you suddenly see a way around the problem.

The point of the brainstorming portion of the creative process is to let the backside of your head have a chance to look at the problem for awhile, to give the subconscious room to move. This requires taking your conscious mind aside and telling it a story, distracting it with something. It’s like when sometimes things show in your peripheral vision that disappear when you look at them straight on. You need to create a temporary environment that gives that other part of your brain a chance to speak. Otherwise, you’ll just go on struggling over the big rocks when a more efficient leap is right there waiting for you.

In the business world of the 1940s, when Alex Osborn first came up with the brainstorming concept, people weren’t exactly encouraged to be creative in their jobs. The world was at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, and the paradigm was one of production and distribution, of factories and motion studies and standardized parts. People went to work, they did their work, they got paid. A lot of people who were creative were expected to suck it up and toe the company line, to listen to their bosses and do what they were told, to be organization men. Of course, the people who did this best were people who knew how to make their bosses happy, not the people with the best ideas. And so those were the people who got promoted, became the bosses… and on and on.

Brainstorming was a brilliant way to shake this up. It put an emphasis on ideas, not on hierarchy, and as a result we ended up (in some industries) with Mad Men companies, where the people with the ideas, rather than the ones who did what they were told, were the ones being promoted. The long-term effect of this can be still be seen in the tech industry, where ideas (and of course their execution) are valued highly, the creative process setting the tone of the companies’ cultures and driving an innovative and constantly-evolving industry.

The key to understanding brainstorming’s effectiveness is not to be distracted by so-called results. A brainstorming session is not necessarily going to yield the answers at that moment, and there are a lot of quantifying elements that define how good the ideas generated are going to be in the long run. I would posit that there is a spectrum for brainstorming: at one end is creative brainstorming, and at the other, evolutionary brainstorming.

Creative brainstorming is what it sounds like: two to four creative people getting together and discussing a problem that they’ve been working on and trying to find their way out of that problem — like the artists sitting around with their friends and glasses of wine. This kind of deep problem-solving really only works when you are working in a small group and when you trust the other people. If there is someone in the group who has more power, and likes to wield it, it will inhibit the others. Or if one person doesn’t get the creative process and is constantly working against the flow, too much time will be spent teaching, bringing them up to speed. There has to be a feeling of juices flowing, of people sharing and being excited by each other’s thoughts. There has to be a sense that it doesn’t matter if the outcome happens right away, because the point is to get out of your rut and think about it in a new way, and tossing it around with your friends is how you do it.

Evolutionary brainstorming, on the other hand, is when you get a bunch of people together and try to introduce them to the creative process. You play games, you come up with a problem they have to work together to solve, you try to shake things up a little bit. Fred from accounting gets a chance to fly his freak flag and express those weird ideas he never gets a chance to talk about, because there is no judgement. The ideas generated are not designed so much to actually solve the problem, as they are to show people how to think outside the box, even to show them that they can think outside the box, if the conditions are right.

The difference between the two ends of the spectrum is that in the one situation you have a small number of people who are used to working creatively, who are comfortable with the process and with each other, getting together to let their ideas fly and see what comes of it; while in the other you have a (sometimes larger) group of people who are unfamiliar with the creative process, getting together to try to break some barriers and think outside of the usual workplace boxes and ruts. Clearly, a creative team will use brainstorming much more effectively than other types of workers, since they are versed in the process and familiar with the language. But that doesn’t mean that no one else can benefit from learning the process.

At the evolutionary end of the spectrum there is limited short-term results, and in some cases, there will be an initial limit in buy-in by employees in what is perceived as a forced engagement. But in the best case scenario, the results can affect the more ephemeral aspects of the work environment: creative thinking is (hopefully) seen as being encouraged and valuable; people see different aspects of their co-workers, perhaps seeing something that gets them to seek each other out and form problem-solving partnerships; and hierarchy is, at least temporarily, breeched, giving someone who might usually be in the background a chance to come to the forefront. These are all effective and important results — but they are less immediately quantifiable toward the problem-solving than what you’d expect with a creative team doing the same thing. The point here is, ideas are a side-effect of letting your subconscious out to play. We are so caught up in outcome that we forget they are not a product so much as a part of the process, and if you can learn to listen to that leap-making part of your mind, you’ll be a better problem-solver in the long run.

To facilitate brainstorming in a workplace that is not specifically design/creative oriented (administrative, systems analysis, production, etc) it’s important to make certain that the person guiding the brainstorming session is in fact a person who works with the creative process on an ongoing basis, who is bilingual, who can get the employees to relax into the process. Brainstorming should be about being excited, about feeling larger than your usual self. With someone inspiring to guide it, even the most mind-bogglingly dull person can feel moved to contribute — and more importantly, come away from the session with some questions for themselves about how they’ve been going about all their other tasks, as well.