By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker
Is it time to send brainstorming to the Smithsonian Museum to put on display with other antiquated business tools such as typewriters, overhead projectors, slide carousels and fax machines?
I believe if advertising executive Alex Osborn – who is known as the father of brainstorming – were still around even he’d be disappointed that brainstorming has become ineffective in today’s business world. Its ineffectiveness has many business consultants and academicians encouraging companies to no longer conduct brainstorming sessions because they are a waste of time. In his book, Your Creative Power (1940), Osborn outlined in detail how to brainstorm and included guidelines with an extensive flowchart. Unfortunately, over time the basics he described have been ignored or overlooked and now cause many business people to roll their eyes at the thought of participating in yet another brainstorming meeting.
Osborn’s concept – and the ultimate success he derived as an ad exec from the process – was based on the theory that if you brought a group of people together from different backgrounds and with different experiences you will end up with a wealth of great ideas. It makes sense. However, a study conducted at Yale University in 1958 (and many more studies since then) revealed that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone.
So, should we throw brainstorming away? Is it as outdated as typewriters in today’s business world? Or, can we revive brainstorming and make it a productive critical thinking tool once again that spurs creativity? These are serious questions that we must ask especially since many work groups still engage in brainstorming sessions to solve problems and develop new ideas but are sadly disappointed by the results. Here are some suggestions to salvage and reinvigorate Osborn’s original brainstorming technique:
Limit the size of the group – Keep your brainstorming session to seven people or fewer. Many times if the group is larger, some people will take advantage of the “free ride effect” or “social loafing” and sit back and watch other people do all the work. In short, they sit there texting or playing Candy Crush® and don’t participate.
Create a “creative environment” – If you want people to be creative you have to set the mood which makes them feel creative. You wouldn’t expect a group of chefs to prepare a gourmet meal by putting them into studio apartment-sized kitchen with limited pots and pans and cutlery. You need to put them in a facility that allows them to showcase their talents. The same holds true for a management team. Most people are running from one meeting to another and by putting them into a typical stale corporate conference room and expect them to be creative is futile. The furniture and the walls are screaming at them to “think inside the box” and maintain the company’s status quo. Plan on preparing the meeting room in advance to elicit excitement and cause a “paradigm shift” in thinking. Consider the following:
- Rearrange the furniture – or move the furniture to the hallway and have everyone sit on the floor.
- Bring in toys for the meeting participants to play with, such as Play-Dough®, Nerf Balls® or other Dollar Store-type trinkets.
- Make everyone write with crayons on construction paper or large colored Sticky Notes®.
- Bring in music which will help people relax and forget about tasks – for a little while – that they need to do when they leave your meeting.
Set ground rules – Don’t start by saying, “Here’s the problem. What ideas do you have to solve it?” Implement some of Osborn’s original guidelines which led to his success:
- Set a goal for the number of ideas you want to identify and a time limit for the actual brainstorming. This creates a sense of urgency and a deadline.
- Defer judgement during the actual brainstorming session. Don’t comment on any idea until the brainstorming part of the meeting is over.
- No “Killer Statements” (i.e. “That is a stupid idea.” “You’re out of your mind,” etc.)
- Encourage “freewheeling.” Ideas that are way “out of the box” can sometime yield way to more “grounded” solutions.
- No idea is a bad idea – Capture EVERY idea uttered on a flip chart or white board.
Schedule time to warm-up – Professional athletes don’t just run out onto the field (or court) and just begin playing. They warm-up and stretch. Give your team a chance to warm-up by brainstorming on an unrelated, non-business problem, such as, “How many ideas can you come up with for empty tin cans?” This will get the creative engine in their mind revved up and prepare them for the primary concern about which you called the meeting.
Don’t select an idea in the same meeting you created it – You don’t have the facts available to you in the meeting to decide if an idea will actually work or not. Assign ideas to people to gather relevant information so the team can accurately assess the ideas at a later meeting. If not, you may eliminate ideas based upon assumptions, opinions and guess from alleged subject matter experts or “authority” in the room.
Allow people a few minutes to brainstorm individually before opening the group brainstorming session – Introduce the problem and give people five minutes to brainstorm on their own. Then go around the room and record the ideas they identified. This will give the group a head start and get people thinking. Then open the floor up to the typical group brainstorming session.
When you go the extra mile and adhere to Osborn’s original concept, you too, can be as successful as he was and help avoid throwing brainstorming into the category of outdated business tools.
Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.