How to Brainstorm the Right Way
The next time you need a killer idea, don’t dive straight into your usual brainstorming session.
Let’s assume the likely: you’ve got a team of bright, capable people.
When tackling problems together or drawing up a new strategy, the protocol—ingrained by years of school projects and not-so-different work projects—is to huddle together in a meeting room, throw out ideas on the spot, and emerge enlightened with the ultimate plan that will save the day, powered by the combined creative juices of the entire team.
It has the ring of common sense.
But it’s also a myth.
As the Story Goes
Brainstorming has existed for as long as people could talk civilly to each other, although it only emerged as a formal practice in the 1940s, thanks to an advertising executive named Alex Osborn.
He set it running with two principles: defer judgment (avoid rejecting your coworker’s idea right away, no matter how far-fetched or unreasonable) and reach for quantity (the more ideas, the better).
To a certain extent, this does accord with what we know about creativity. The main point of these two principles is to shush the inner critic.
By prioritizing quantity over quality, you become free to come up with more out-of-the-box ideas. And when your ideas collide with that of other people’s, maybe they’ll combine into an innovative hybrid.
The studies say that brainstorming as we know it doesn’t work that well, though. A 1958 Yale study came up with the baffling finding that male students who worked by themselves solved twice as many puzzles as their peers in groups.
Solitude seems to be a necessary element for creativity, which seems to spring up more often when we’re alone rather than when we’re yelling enthusiastically at each other.
Creative geniuses like Albert Einstein and Picasso spent a great deal of time daydreaming on their own. “Without solitude, no great work is possible,” Picasso quipped.
The Pitfalls of Brainstorming
There are numerous reasons for this, with the biggest culprit being the unconscious tendency towards groupthink. Members in a group feel subconsciously pressured to go along with the dominant idea, and the thrust is towards narrowing down—honing in on a specific train of thought rather than genuinely considering multiple alternatives.
Compared to when you have to figure out everything by yourself, you also feel less compelled to contribute. There are, what, four or more other people with you? If you don’t have that great insight, it’s not too worrying—maybe they’ll get it.
On top of this, the first ideas tossed out are extremely crucial because they set the direction of the conversation. And the first ideas are rarely ever brilliant. They’re safe and err on the side of the obvious—people are testing the waters, and they’re wary of appearing stupid or invoking dead silence.
There’s a distinct bias towards being loud and vocal. Ideas that get endorsed the most enthusiastically may win out—and annoyingly, being bombarded with other people’s ideas can stifle rather than stimulate your own.
Another interesting finding is that criticism isn’t all bad—when it’s channeled into constructive debate. According to a study by Nemeth, groups that debated—thus breaking the principle of deferring judgment—came up with 20% more ideas.
Getting someone to challenge your idea can actually be fruitful because you get to elaborate on it—and the sparks of argument, more than simple acceptance, can give rise to more insights.
The Right Way to Brainstorm
As pointed out by Art Markan, brainstorming still does have its place: it’s primarily useful for convergent thinking—taking an existing set of ideas and filtering them, sorting out which can be the most useful. To harness its full power, it’s suggested that the actual idea generation be done on an individual basis.
Rather than lunging into full-blown debate right away, let everyone write down their ideas first, or come to the meeting with a list already prepared. Because the mind needs to incubate for a while before spitting out creativity, it might be better to give people a few days to prepare their list.
Curiously, the groupthink effect of brainstorming dissipates when done digitally—in other words, when people aren’t talking to each other face-to-face. In this case, the more people involved, the better.
You can see this in online forums, and replicate the effect by logging down everyone’s ideas and inspiration and putting them in a shared folder that can be viewed anytime by the team.
Creativity can be flighty and elusive—the Ancient Greeks chalked it up to Muses who could come and go on their own whims, and whom you had to court and not displease.
While you can’t control when exactly that flash of insight will strike, you can cajole it to visit more often by setting the right conditions. For groups, this means thinking both on your own and together: cultivate your own ideas first, then bring them to the table—and don’t give in to the noise.