Does Brainstorming Work?

Brain storm in Enschede  (Office)

Photo credit: Johan Koolwaaij

Brainstorming is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group”.  Typically a topic is posed and a group of 6-10 people try to generate a variety of creative ideas.  The #1 rule is that there is no judgment or criticism, as every idea is accepted.  After the initial “brainstorming”, the leader will review the ideas to explore what may solve the problem or be a creative alternative to the current state.

The technique of brainstorming was developed by an Advertising Executive in the 1940’s.  The concept was believed to change the culture of group meetings and sessions.  It gained wide spread acceptance throughout much of the past 50 years.  Lately, the concept has been challenged.

Even when groups are instructed to freely express their thoughts and ideas they often don’t.  Also, without any debate or discussion, many ideas never make it to the table.

How is it possible that many people focusing on a problem is not more effective than a single person thinking of a problem?  It all comes down to the concept of working well together being defined as not hurting anyone’s feelings and staying positive.  While in general, those are sound boundaries within teams, the danger is taking that thought too literally.  Respectfully challenging an idea and proposing an alternative is not the same as telling someone their idea is stupid.  Team members must be coached to not take it personal if ideas are not accepted. 

Personally, do I think brainstorming is effective?  I do if it is done right.  It takes a talented moderator who can watch for signs of discouragement and keep the group focused on the task.
When I lead groups, I believe there are three steps to problem solving:

1.    Set the Stage: team members must be informed of the problem, the process, and even encouraged to think of resolution ideas independently before the initial group brainstorming session

2.    Brainstorm: allow free thought where every member’s ideas are documented without debate.  This is a critical time to engage all team members and get them invested in the problem.  Great resolution often starts with small ideas

3.    The 3 D’s: Discuss-Debate-Decide.  Communicate to the group that the brainstorming has ended and now each idea will be Discussed and Debated so that a Decision can be made

An effective leader will be able to lead the group through the discussion and get everyone excited about the idea, even if it wasn’t their own.  Ultimately, whatever is decided should be celebrated as a group success.  Everyone participated in the discussion and the end Decision may never have been found if it wasn’t for the efforts of the entire group.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!

Sources:  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer#ixzz2DuPGGY6J,  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brainstorming

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