Is brainstorming as good a way to solve problems as it’s cracked up to be?
Alex Osborn proposed the technique in his 1942 book How to Think Up. For years, we’ve believed that if a group uses its collective brainpower to “storm” a problem, it will create an enormous pool of ideas, including a few that will show definite promise.
Recently, neuroscientist and bestselling author Jonah Lehrer characterized this belief as a case of the emperor’s new clothes. In Imagine, his long-awaited book on creative thinking, Dr. Lehrer argues that brainstorming doesn’t work, starting with a 1958 study in which Yale University students working solo came up with more and better solutions to a set of puzzles than students who brainstormed as a group. He claims numerous subsequent studies have produced the same results.
Dr. Lehrer argues that debate and criticism stimulate new thinking more effectively than brainstorming because they “encourage people to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess viewpoints.”
Must this be either/or? Are debate and honest feedback incompatible with a safe atmosphere for discussion? I’d argue that it depends on the ecosystem of the company. If the people at the top create an environment of trust, creative collaboration and open communication, good ideas may surface earlier and without artificial stimulation.
One of the problems with the Osborn approach is that it’s become formulaic. Creative thinkers may rebel or withdraw when subjected to a rigid approach to brainstorming. Introverted types – who often come up with thoughtful, innovative ideas – may feel uncomfortable in a more formal public forum, no matter how safe it purports to be.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Brainstorming only needs to follow one of Osborn’s strict rules: Participants must feel secure in offering new ideas. But it’s the corporate culture that creates that sense of security or insecurity, not any particular idea-generation scheme.
Some problems lend themselves more readily to classical brainstorming. Group thinking can be fruitful when participants have a vested interest. My company has worked with large banks and pharma companies seeking more elegant ways to deliver their products. Because all the participants had a hands-on working knowledge of their current process, they were in a good position to think constructively, together, about how to deal with the inefficiencies they faced each day. Brainstorming enabled them to come up with creative innovations.
Group brainstorming has a big secondary benefit: Employees become engaged when they have a voice, even if the company doesn’t ultimately adopt their idea. Being heard counts.
There are many ways to generate good ideas with groups or individuals – or there can be any number of combinations of solo and group thinking. The approach chosen depends on the context, type of problem and particular gifts of those involved. So long as people can allow themselves to think with imagination, they can do so in a group or in their own quiet space.
To brainstorm or not brainstorm is not the question.
Lola Rasminsky specializes in creativity workshops for the public and private sector.
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