Does Brainstorming Work?


There’s been much talk on the creative block regarding the process of brainstorming, the question being: does it work at all? Brainstorming was popularized sixty years ago by BBDO co-founder, Alex Osborn, in his book Applied Imagination. The book indicates four basic principles:

i) Focus on Quantity

ii) Withhold Criticism

iii) Welcome Unusual Ideas

iv) Combine and Improve Ideas

Osborn’s legacy speaks for itself, and to this day several companies credit brainstorming techniques for many of their great ideas. But it’s still valid to wonder whether we’d be better of without brainstorming.

The main critics argue that the Achilles heel of brainstorming is precisely it’s cardinal rule: not criticizing ideas. The assumption behind this main rule is that our creativity is fragile and we must embrace free association: quantity versus quality. But critics argue that this may be counter-productive, that brainstorming will not lead to great insights if there is no valuable criticism.

This may be a valid point. In fact, to certain degree, the associations can even be predicted. But are we better of brainstorming by ourselves? No matter how creative you consider yourself to be, there are limits to your knowledge and experience, and whether you are aware of it or not, you probably have margins subconsciously established around certain topics. We all have our own “boxed way of thinking.” And here is where the magic of group brainstorming comes into play: if practiced properly (i.e. without fear of judgment or production blocking) it can help individuals break out into new patterns of association. Together.

It goes without saying that the more diverse the team brainstorming is–the better the results will be. You would be surprised how many “executives” may be able to “think-up” an idea based on the association of a 7-year old…that’s how far off you sometimes have to go. However, critics may be right in pointing out that not all brainstorms inside an institution are successful, since often times they may not lead to any breakthrough. But even if no creative solutions come up, there is still a benefit: team-building. Engaging in this sort of creative feedback breaks the ice across departments, and if an idea comes up it is more likely to be openly accepted by all.

Furthermore, none of the critics have addressed the wisdom of crowds that the Internet now allows. Which brings me to another point: Electric Brainstorming (it even sounds cool!) Electric Brainstorming (EBS) aims to reduce the problem of production blocking and evaluation apprehension by using computers to brainstorm.

Whereas traditional brainstorming may be time-consuming and not as optimal, EBS can solve these issues with the right interface. EBS allows for idea generation about a specific topic amongst groups simultaneously or at different times. With computers there is no need to wait for your turn, and the fear of criticism can be eliminated if the user prefers anonymity.

But the studies around EBS have centered on closed groups or organizations. The real magic can happen when a brainstorming platform harnesses the power of the crowds. The wisdom of the crowds is an exhausting topic that can be discussed elsewhere, but we are seeing it’s effects everywhere, from funding projects to toppling governments, and even to genome folding.

So did brainstorming work in the past? Probably it did, but not optimally. I would say Osborn was a visionary far ahead of his time who’d probably be a heavy user of Twitter and WikiBrains today. But it is time for critics and practitioners of brainstorming to update their field of vision and realize that we are not limited to brainstorming within our organizations. The information age is an era of collaboration, ideas, and knowledge…and it’s about time we bring the crowd-sourced brainstorm!

Further Reading

You. Will. Die.

 — How to keep first things first and not sweat the small stuff

Better Brainstorms

 — a free online course that takes you through brainstorming’s history, rules and common problems and looks at how to get the most out of a group idea generation session. This six part course is made up of videos, quizzes and highly useful resources.

Written by

Brainstormer, bookworm, and naive dreamer. Fishin’ for ideas @WikiBrains. Trying to make the world a better place.

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