Don’t throw the brainstorming out with the bathwater
News that a study by Texas A&M University that brainstorming could be counter-productive is welcome in at least bringing the subject of how you go about creating ideas under the spotlight.
The real fundamental is that a vast majority of people don’t know how to manage getting the most out of their creativity and when it comes to generating ideas they live in a fog. Bad brainstorming is the least of their creativity problems.
By acquiring good opportunity-spotting habits and understanding how to nurture ideas, including how to run a proper brainstorming session they can make the most of their talent – and that of their colleagues or networks.
The problem with the news reports of this study is that they fail to recognise how the word ‘brainstorming’ is used both as a generic shorthand for what is called ‘blue sky thinking’, or what I call Green Light Thinking, as well as being a specific creative thinking technique pioneered by Alex Osborn in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.
Also the idea creation process spans from ‘inception’ – described as the twinkle in your eye, through to conception through to a more concrete realization. Certain tools such as a brainstorm session bringing people together to challenge and stretch other people’s ideas, if managed right, can be highly effective in nurturing creative ideas.
Also, using brainstorming has value outside the arena of creativity, in being useful for team building and political buy-in to any subsequent ideas generated; it is a lot harder to be critical and in opposition if you were part of the process creating the ideas.
The researchers from Texas A&M University show that group Brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, and leading eventually to a conformity of ideas
In my Structured Brainstorming technique I recommend that one person at the outset works on a brief and comes up with initial ideas, to mop up the obvious or immediate. This helps avoid what the researchers call idea fixation.
I also integrate an incubation dimension to the process – where you sleep on a problem – too get a fuller and wider response.
The researchers, I suspect under-estimate the very difficulty of getting different people to provide their time or offer input in some way to the idea creation process. At least Brainstorming gets people in the same time and place (or just time in Virtual brainstorming) to work on a problem. Any shortcomings in the Brainstorming process they identified need to be traded off against this critical issue of lack of time, attention or input from a wider group of people.
The danger with these type of news reports is that it provides confirmatory evidence for those who want to believe they are either not creative, or have a victim or hubris mentality that you cannot improve the creative dimension of a given situation.
Please, use brainstorming as a specific technique critically, but don’t engage in bland criticism of brainstorming as a generic creative process – and like the proverbial baby, don’t throw the Brainstorming out with the bathwater.
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