Why do brainstorms get a bad rap?

February 7, 2023
Love them or hate them, brainstorms have become the stock format for idea generation in business. But why do they get such a bad reputation? Let's look at some of the problems associated with brainstorming.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t have brainstorms at all. They argue that group activity can encounter lots of problems which get in the way of great ideas. To understand this, it's useful to look at brainstorms in a little more detail.

Where it all started

It was a New York advertising man, Alex Osborn (not Don Draper), who outlined the concept of brainstorming in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. He had developed it within his advertising agency BBDO, and proposed the following four basic rules:

  • Focus on quantity
  • Withhold criticism
  • Welcome unusual ideas
  • Combine and improve

No evaluation or judgement was involved – this was purely to generate as many ideas as possible, based on the principle that the more ideas you have, the better chance there is of one (or more) being of really high quality.

Problems with brainstorming

There are real problems with brainstorming, however.

For example ‘social matching’, where the group’s quality of thinking gravitates towards the level of the average member – meaning that only average results can be expected.

Free riding’ can be another problem, when participants use the session as an opportunity to kick back and relax, or make jokes.

Evaluation apprehension’ occurs when participants are afraid to voice their ideas because of fear of judgement, or peer pressure.

And ‘Blocking’ means that some ideas are left unsaid, because others are already speaking.

In addition, research has shown that having a room of people coming up with ideas individually can result in more ideas than those generated by a group brainstorm. Keith Sawyer, a renowned creativity expert and author, says: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Also, if there is not enough diversity or honest debate, Groupthink can quickly set in.

Better brainstorms

If you are going to have group idea sessions, it's good practice to appoint a moderator or facilitator.

Having someone to organise the process and keep the momentum can make all the difference. A moderator or facilitator can act as a catalyst to spark a group’s creativity by maintaining energy levels, introducing creative thinking techniques, ensuring group cohesion and providing the necessary support in terms of equipment and recording.

They should ensure that everyone in the group is perceived as equal – removing any hierarchies. In the same vein they should refrain from adopting a teacher-like manner – sitting amongst the group rather than standing at the head of the table like a conductor.

They should be ready to keep up the pace of the brainstorm – if the room goes quiet, be ready to restart it with a creative technique or prompt.

A moderator can be part of a team, or an outside consultant. It isn’t necessary for them to have a deep understanding of the company, or its industry – in fact sometimes it can be a distinct advantage to have someone guaranteed to bring a fresh approach.

Keep the groups small. Mix up the activities. Keep it energetic, and make sure people aren't judging ideas. Brainstorms are best for freestyling.

In fact don't expect too many actual ideas from brainstorms. Creativity takes longer than that. Look on brainstorms as opportunities to playfully explore the territory around the brief.

Better Brainstorms

Everything you need to hold a successful brainstorm, in one handy guide.
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Better Brainstorms
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