Defining Brainstorming

Every so often, there’s an article like this one from Newsweek or this one from Nature, that sparks an age-old debate between two camps in the innovation field: those for and against brainstorming. The term dates back to 1930s, when Alex Osborn first employed organized ideation in the advertising agency he headed. In his book, Applied Imagination, published in 1953, Osborn defined brainstorming as “a creative conference for producing a list of ideas – ideas which can be subsequently evaluated and further processed.”

Five years later, in 1958, Yale University conducted a study to test brainstorming and concluded that brainstorming individually was more effective than brainstorming in a group, but it was widely misinterpreted as “brainstorming didn’t work.” The Yale study created a debate that has percolated for fifty years. Does brainstorming work or not? Does a group generate more and better ideas than the same people would if they were working individually?

To enter this debate it’s necessary to consider what actually happens when you put six people in a room and simply tell them to come up with new ideas. That’s when the assumptive rules of brainstorming kick in:

1) Only say something if you think if it’s a good idea.
2) Judge any idea you hear right away, especially if you think it won’t work.
3) Only speak up if doing so will make you look smart or serious. Try to avoid appearing silly.
4) Support the ideas of anyone who is higher in the hierarchy than you.

If a group hasn’t been trained to collaborate and generate ideas together, or if there isn’t a facilitator to avoid the above pitfalls, these behavioral mores will take over the group experience. In which case, the so-called “brainstorming” probably won’t work.

The Yale study put a group of people in a room to come up with ideas, but did so without any training, and without a skilled facilitator. The assumptive rules were automatically applied, and just by reading them you can deduce that they wouldn’t help a group come up with very many new and innovative ideas.

Brainstorming is a term in every major dictionary, but its definitions vary widely. The Oxford dictionary calls it a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems. Merriam-Webster calls it a violent, transient fit of insanity, or a sudden bright idea or a hair-brained idea. There’s even a legal definition for brainstorming. The Wikipedia definition of brainstorming also includes the basic ground rules that Alex Osborn suggested to effectively counter the assumptive rules:

1) Focus on quantity
2) Withhold criticism
3) Welcome unusual ideas
4) Combine and improve ideas

The ground rules for brainstorming were developed precisely because a bunch of people in a room operating normally will not generate better and different ideas. The social dynamics, if they are not set aside, will worsen the group’s performance. Osborn wrote in Applied Imagination, “No conference can be called a brainstorming session unless the deferment-of-judgment principle is strictly followed.”

If you are not following the deliberate ground rules of brainstorming, then you are not really brainstorming. You’re just having a meeting with a bunch of people. As innovation practitioner Jonathan Vehar puts it, “just because you call your hammer a diaper-changer, doesn’t mean you get to say it doesn’t work. It just means you’re using it incorrectly.”

Brainstorming is a tool, one of many, used to generate ideas. During the use of this tool, suspending judgment is critical in order to produce a stream of potential ideas. Don’t be mistaken that anyone expects all those ideas to be good ones. Once a number of potential ideas are on the table, that’s when participants are invited to put on their judging hat and evaluate and improve too-wild or half-baked ideas to make them viable, and to ultimately select the solutions that can be implemented successfully. Brainstorming is used to diverge and generate options. There are other tools, within the creative process, used to make sure the ideas are not only novel, but useful.

In the end, the trouble conjured up by these anti-brainstorming articles, lies in the definition of brainstorming. Maybe if we agree on a precise definition of the term, that it’s one of many tools used in “a collective effort to come up with new ideas within a framework of ground rules for deferring judgment,” then perhaps we can all get along.

Know further: A little history about Alex Osborn. A review of brainstorming research. Tips for better brainstorming here and here.