Brainstorming Doesn’t Work. Here’s What to Do Instead.

“Do you brainstorm?”

“Why?”

I’ve asked these two questions to a few startups in Berlin lately, and the answers I’ve received for each were always: “yes” and “to come up with new strategies or ideas.

What usually comes after the second answer is a comment along the lines of “and I HATE it!” or “we do it way too much,” or even “it brings nothing, really.

In other words, nobody can stand brainstorming or believes it’s useful, yet everyone does it. So here is the real question, the one that hasn’t been asked enough: is brainstorming a good method to generate new ideas?

The answer — you guessed it — is a resounding no. This article will explain why this is and suggest other methods to try.

Brainstorming issues

When you sit down with your colleagues for your session, you usually follow a standard pattern. Everyone throws in ideas, a moderator records everything on a board, ideas are discussed and one or more are selected and applied.

And herein lies the problem. Brainstorming theory makes one massive assumption: that every person in a brainstorming room is willing to participate and be creative. I will reveal the details later on, but suffice it to say for now, unless everyone respects that assumption, you are better off skipping the whole session!

If you think about it, the bottom line of having ideas is being creative. Now, ask yourself, do you know how to be creative? Note: I’m not asking “are you creative?” Creativity is a science, it’s been studied and it can be learned. The catch is that unless you’ve been interested in purely creative fields like music or art or theater, you probably don’t know how to hack your brain into a creative mode.

Of course, this is not meant to offend you. “Pure” creativity is seldom seen in the business or tech worlds. Precisely for that reason though, if part of your DNA as a startup is to innovate, creativity should be in your arsenal. So how do you do that?

Creativity at work

Think about what happens when you’re writing an email. You write and correct and re-write the first line a bunch of times, and it takes you ten minutes just to do that. That is your brain managing two processes – having ideas and filtering them. Call it left and right brain, if you wish.

In practice, it means you have an idea and put it on paper, then censor it, then have another one, then you correct it again, and so on. This is how we work in our everyday life, and in our everyday life, we are doing just fine with that.

But what if your goal is different? In our example, the goal is to have as many ideas as possible. To get there, the path is apparently simple: you don’t censor ideas, you accept everything that is being said by anyone — without questioning anything — and only after everyone has contributed to the unfiltered pile of ideas do you discuss what’s on the table.

Brainstorming vs. creativity

Without getting into the nitty gritty of how to be creative, let’s go back to that meeting room with your office mates and examine them. Even in a friendly startup-like environment with open communication, is everyone ready to let go of their filter?

You don’t have to trust me — trust proven science. A paper I’ve been studying for a long while looked at a total of 3,215 people brainstorming in 1,088 groups of various sizes. Its main message is that it is “difficult to justify brainstorming techniques in terms of any performance outcomes, and the long-lived popularity of brainstorming techniques is unequivocally and substantively misguided”.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. People interrupting each other and not letting them express ideas;
  2. The social pressure that each member is under while in that group;
  3. Group members that are not interested, or just plain lazy.

The one that has been proven to contribute the most to productivity loss in brainstorming is number two, social pressures.

To me, this is both unexpected and unfortunate. Unexpected because I was sure that the first factor was going to be the key roadblock. Unfortunate because, in comparison to the first and third factor, the social aspect of being in a group is the most difficult one to solve.

Just to be clear, social factors mean nothing more than “how you feel around others.” You are put in a room, expected to magically “let go” and be creative regardless of the fact that:

  • you don’t want to look stupid;
  • you want to impress your boss;
  • you don’t want to contradict the colleague you have a crush on;
  • you want to get a raise;
  • you are naturally introverted.

And the list goes on. These social pressure points are exactly the filters that you need to remove if you want to boost your creativity! We saw that creativity is based on an uncensored and uninterrupted flow of ideas that are generated, considered in their entirety, and then filtered. If you’re being pressured from all sides, there is no way you can let go of your creative barriers.

Ever wondered why brainstorming sessions usually end up with two or three people — usually high in the ranks or particularly extroverted — giving several ideas and the rest being mostly silent? Those people are particularly comfortable with letting go, and that is all. That does not necessarily mean, however, that their ideas are superior.

Think about what would happen if your introverted but super smart colleague had the chance to voice out every single one of his or her ideas? Your goal should be to get as much content as possible out of each member, not block their contributions.

Brainstorming alternatives

Up to now, we’ve discussed the following:

  • Creativity is based on the lack of censoring ideas;
  • Social pressure is contributing the most to censoring ideas (i.e. not voicing them out);
  • Brainstorming creates a social pressure environment for the individual.

That leaves us with two possibilities. We can keep brainstorming and try to fix it somehow, or we can use alternative methods.

If you want to go with something that still resembles brainstorming, you could try either the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) or the Delphi Method.

The NGT works around the brainstorming blocks by separating thinking and discussing. First you pose the problem/question, then you have all members write down ideas separately and in silence. Once they’re done, you collect their ideas, one by one, and record them on the board — no questions or discussions are allowed. After that, you can start a discussion and proceed with the meeting as you please. The key aspects of this method are separating, creating and discussing; but it is still not perfect because it eliminates a procedural block but not a social factor (people will still have to discuss in a group).

The Delphi method, instead, starts with a problem sent to all team members, who are asked to answer back with their individual solution. Once you receive these pieces of information, you use them to construct another version of the problem that already incorporates the solutions suggested until that moment. You send that around and ask to elaborate again. Repeat this process a few times and you end up with a collectively built solution to a problem that took everyone’s ideas into account. This method evades both procedural and social factors.

The NGT, despite dodging some creative brainstorming blocks by offering a safer environment, still remains highly structured — and honestly, it’s boring. Think about how much fun it would be to sit in a room in silence writing stuff down for an hour. The Delphi method makes it quicker in the short run, but in the long run, can you honestly feel happy and good about filling in questionnaire after questionnaire? Let alone wanting to do a good job after the third iteration!

Solution and bottom line

What’s the quick and dirty solution? Combine the NGT and the Delphi method. Send your team a topic or a problem and ask for 30 ideas or solutions, do a limited amount of iterations, then collect everything on a board and call the team in for a short discussion. It’s not perfect, but it partially solves both the social and the procedural aspects.

How about the not-so-quick and not-so-dirty solution? You’ve got an endless number of tools to generate new ideas or select a strategy . You can start with checking whether you need your team at all (Vroom Yetton Jago model), or trust highly structured methods (the Quantitative Strategic Planning Matrix) or consider every single possible option (Zwicky’s Box).

The list of these techniques is long (my decision-making book lists 40), and while none of them is perfect, they can all perform well. The point here is not having the best technique in the world — if there were one, we’d all be using it. The point is to be aware of what techniques you can use instead of brainstorming and to choose what resonates best with you and your team.

And if for some reason you are one of those ultra-rare situations where social factors are null and each person in your team feels fully comfortable with every single other person 100% of the time… well, go ahead with brainstorming. You might be one of the very few places that actually manage to make it work!

Sources:

André L. Delbecq, Andrew H. Van de Ven: A Group Process Model for Problem Identification and Program Planning (1971)

Norman Dalkey, Olaf Helmer: An Experimental Application of the DELPHI Method to the Use of Experts. (1963)

Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson & Eduardo Salas: Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration (1991)