Effective Brainstorming

By Pete Meacham, Director of Marketing

Brainstorming sessions, free association exercises, judgment-free idea incubators–don’t these sound like situations for effective collaboration and bold creative solutions?

Maybe not…

The concept of brainstorming, vigorous group participation in a non-judgmental environment, has long been considered a valuable tool for unleashing creativity and discovering new ways to solve problems. But as with so many rituals, the story may be more convincing than the data.

Last month, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting and well-sourced piece in The New Yorker that appears to take some of the wind out of brainstorming. In it, he points to numerous studies, like this one that empirically demonstrate not only that brainstorming usually fails to increase creativity, but often inhibits it.

So does this mean we all need to lock the doors to our offices, or start working from home? Not at all. Collaboration remains the best way to achieve real results. It’s just that we need to develop more…mature guidelines in our approach:

Beware the extrovert bias – Many of the best thinkers in history have been introverts. Deferring to the most outspoken and animated participants is extremely limiting and short sighted. Don’t miss out on any otherwise silent brilliance by misunderstanding the different styles of your collaborators.

Challenge assumptions and falsify – Science is a process of falsification. It’s nice (in kindergarten) to be in a judgment free environment. But if debate is silenced, differing perspectives and critical thinking are stifled.

Build consensus around hard data – Beginning with the irrefutable is the best way to avoid conflict. Competing egos and opinions are best mitigated by the facts.

Utilize relationships, don’t ignore them – Don’t imagine that personal dynamics can magically disappear in a given situation. Take advantage of the relationships that exist to build on the already present honest respect.

Foster genuine, not enforced, respect – All of us are judgmental and ego driven to some degree, and trying to pretend we aren’t is counter-productive. Judgment will be there whether it’s open or not, but it can only be helpful when it’s respectfully voiced and tested by debate. In the adult world, which is where we are (hopefully) working, respect is earned, or unearned, by how we communicate... so foster the former and discourage the latter.

That’s how real leaders discover value.