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Jon Ronson on Brainstorming


Writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson recently turned his analytical eye on brainstorming for Radio 4. I’m a big fan of Ronson so listened along, wondering what angle he would take and what he would uncover.

You wouldn’t think that Latvia would be the natural place for such a programme to start, but that’s Ronson’s way. He starts by visiting Latvian PR agency Inspired, who in 2009 faked a meteorite landing to promote a new mobile phone tariff. By interviewing the agency principals and describing some of their other ideas, Ronson does a good job of demonstrating that for this brief, Inspired came up with a lot of really bad ideas.

He then goes on to suggest that maybe because they came up with those ideas in brainstorms, we should think about blaming brainstorms. Seems a bit of a sweeping statement, but as it’s you Jon, I’ll listen on.

He then interviews Quiet author Susan Cain, who says: “The funny thing about brainstorming is that there’s been 40 years, maybe more by now, of research on it, and what the research repeatedly shows is that it just doesn’t work. I mean it never works.”

Brainstorming never works? Wow, there’s a big statement.

Cain goes on: “Individuals who are brainstorming on their own almost always come up with more ideas and better ideas than groups of people brainstorming together.” She argues that brainstorm situations are better suited to extroverts, who dominate the session with their ideas, while introverts stay quiet. As a result the best ideas are often never heard.

Ronson describes a recent brainstorm he participated in, where he stayed silent for 45 minutes while others talked incessantly, without even realising he hadn’t contributed.

Back to Latvia. Ronson describes the meteorite landing project in more detail, and you’ve probably guessed by now that the stunt goes badly wrong. The meteorite landing is so realistic that firemen are stationed there for several days with feared radiation poisoning. When the people from Inspired call a press conference to announce that the whole thing was to promote a new phone tariff, everyone gets very angry. Despite this PR disaster, the campaign wins several awards. When the mobile phone tariff launches, it sells out immediately.

Ronson then turns to brainstorming’s origins, explaining that it was adman Alex Osborn who coined the concept, encouraging freewheeling and deferring judgement. He quotes Susan Cain again: “I think it works to some extent, but you con’t really overcome human nature at the end of the day.”

Next come more bad ideas that originated in brainstorms, including Harley Davidson’s move into cake decorating kitsCosmopolitan magazine launching yogurts, and restaurant chain Hooters starting its own airline.

Hooters Air launched in 2003 and closed in 2006. Hooters’ chief marketing officer Mike McNeil describes the session that led to the launch – Hooters boss Robert Brooks sat his executives down in a conference room and announced that he had an idea, to launch an airline. Because he was such a forceful personality, the executives weren’t able to come up with arguments that convinced him that it wouldn’t work.

That doesn’t sound like a brainstorm to me. It just sounds like a boss who doesn’t want to listen to his employees.

Ronson wraps up by reinforcing his argument that brainstorms aren’t suited to introverts, citing Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak and JK Rowling as examples of people who had their best ideas when solitary. He finishes: “Every terrible idea in this programme was made on the spur of the moment in a meeting room. If there’s a moral it’s that sometimes we should all just sit there, and have a think.”

An entertaining programme, and we’d recommend you listen to it in full here.

While Ronson makes a lot of good points, and I agree with his closing statement, I can’t just lie back and agree that all brainstorms are terrible, or as quoted by Susan Cain, that they never work. I would argue that a more accurate statement is that many brainstorms are terrible. Why? Because most people have no idea what they are doing – the majority never receive any training or guidance in how to run brainstorms or participate in brainstorm sessions.

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