4 reasons you can't brainstorm creative ideas – And what you should do instead

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Brainstorming is de rigueur in almost every professional environment.

Managers think that to get to the heart of an issue and get the best out of their creative personnel they should put them all in a room and the ideas will fly.

But here’s the thing: brainstorming doesn’t work.

If you had you were charged with coming up with the worst way to get people to come up with plentiful, unique, imaginative ideas – then brainstorming would probably fit that bill.

I have talked briefly before about research into the subject and why more and more companies and creatives are moving away from brainstorming, at least in its classical ‘let’s all sit in a room and shout at each other’ format, but here I am going to go through all the way that brainstorming is ruining your creative process, and the ways that you can change these sessions from creative busts to creative boons.

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Why brainstorming doesn’t work

Imagine your average brainstorming session. The group files into a conference room, replete with a plate of cookies and an empty whiteboard. They are then given a task, designing a widget or building an app, and told to ‘shoot for the moon’ with their ideas. What happens next?

01. The group goes for low-hanging fruit

First off, someone says something obvious. Because brainstorming requires every idea to be given its due, the group runs with this first idea, discussing the idea even when everybody knows that it is bunkum. Before you know it half the session is gone and nothing has really been accomplished.

Welcome to anchoring. Anchoring is one of the truly hundreds of cognitive biases we all have. A cognitive bias is like a little rule you have in your brain for making the world easier to understand and to help us make decisions easily and quickly. Sometimes these work for us, and sometimes against us. With anchoring, we tend to put undue weight on the first idea of piece of information we are presented with. Everything else afterwards is judged on its relative merit compared to that piece of information.

In a brainstorming session, the group gets ‘anchored’ to this initial idea and simply can’t let it go, spending too much time on it, and using it as the bar that all other ideas are measured against.

This then receives disproportionate attention during the session, and only at the end does everyone start to move on to more interesting ideas, and then rush through them.

These low-hanging fruit are also a way for some members of the group to look good. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it – chime in quickly with the thing everyone is thinking of, and then you have done your bit. You can sit back and eat the cookies while everyone else comes up with the smart ideas.

As, we will see later, starting simple and taking baby steps from there is a good idea. But too often people never get beyond this simple stage.

02. ‘Groupthink’ sets in

Groupthink goes along with the anchoring effect. Generally people want to avoid conflict and we simply can’t help but want to agree with an idea someone presents, even if we have better ideas of our own.

This is a particular problem in a group situation like brainstorming. In any group there are going to be some people who are loudmouths and some people who are wallflowers. Because criticism is generally frowned upon in brainstorming (see below), this is supposed to help those of us (me included, and probably a lot of creatives out there) to find our voice and speak up. But anyone who has ever been in such a meeting knows this is not what happens.

The loud people talk first and override the conversation and then everyone goes along with what they say. This is the natural order of such meetings. People want to conform and certainly don’t want to face off against another member of the group, particularly if they themselves are shy. This means that whatever the loudest members say goes, even if it isn’t the best of ideas. This is what brainstorming was supposed to stop, but actually it is made worse by this group thought environment.

03. You are told to be ‘uncritical’

One of the main selling points of brainstorming is that the sessions are uncritical environments were anyone can have an idea without the worry of feeling stupid. This is supposed to foster originality and let more timid, shyer members of the group (which creatives can often be) speak without fear of being shouted down.

That is great in theory, but terrible in practice. It leads to exactly the problems above, where easy or stupid ideas aren’t dismissed. The group has to run with them, discussing ideas that lack merit just so people do not get discouraged.

I am not advocating piling in on the first person to say something idiotic, but this paradox is a significant issue with brainstorming – we want people to come up with creative ideas, so don’t want to criticize them, but criticism is a necessary part of creativity. Therefore, you can’t have true creativity within a brainstorming session as they are currently run.

04. You are under pressure

In research published in the Harvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, showed that pressure is almost always terrible for creative thinking. She studied 177 people working for different companies in the US, asking them to keep diaries of when and how they felt most creative.

One of the worst correlates for creativity was pressure. When people felt under significant time pressure they felt more distracted, unable to focus on the task in hand, and as if they were on a treadmill and not really contributing to the firm’s success. This is what can happen in a brainstorming session. People are under a tight time constraint and therefore start to worry about what that instead of focusing on the task in hand. Most people will have experienced this – when you look at the clock, equally worried that you don’t have enough time to solve the issue, and that the session isn’t yet over.

This is the opposite from how a lot of creatives intuitively feel – many see the looming deadline and the pressure as a spur, something that makes the eureka moment all the more likely (we will come to the fallacy of eureka shortly). Time pressure can work, but rarely in the setting of a brainstorming session. Because the environment itself isn’t conducive to creativity, with uncritical thinking and overwhelming characters and groupthink, then the pressure only adds to the wrong decisions being made.

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How to make brainstorming work

So what if you want to make your brainstorming sessions work? Well, there have been some interesting studies into what does work in this type of environment and how to get the most creative ideas out of people in such a session – Allow them to find their own way, and somewhat contradictory, don’t have a brainstorming session (yet).

01. Take baby steps

Unless you are Archimedes, there is no Eureka! When we looked at what makes creative people different, it was always that they worked hard and developed particular strategies that worked well for them.

There were no sudden moments for genius even for the geniuses. Instead, great ideas grow from good ideas that spawn from all ideas.

Joel Chan and Christian Schunn, both from the University of Pittsburgh, looked at exactly this – how do you get from a small idea to a big idea to a great idea? Chan and Schunn looked at transcripts from different engineering teams to see how these designers came up with their ideas. They found that instead of some massive leap of knowledge from a member, the progress was gradual as the teams leapfrogged from one idea to the next, always growing their thoughts into bigger and bigger ideas, and getting closer to the solution.

“Creativity is a stepwise process in which idea A spurs a new but closely related thought, which prompts another incremental step, and the chain of little mental advances sometimes eventually ends with an innovative idea in a group setting,” said the researchers.

Real creativity comes from simple collaboration and the bouncing of simple ideas to something bigger. These designers may start with the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of other brainstorming sessions, but unlike the ones that go wrong, these groups keep making progress and do not anchor to a simple idea too early.

This shows how important the group dynamic is for brainstorming. If these engineering teams had too many members, or some that were too overpowering, they might have stumbled too early. Instead the groups work well together and come up with the ideas needed together.

Chan and Schunn also said that setting up a brainstorming session as a forum for ‘great ideas’ can backfire. The members can then become fixated on trying to come up with that one great idea and forget the small ideas that it will take to get there. Companies looking to set up these brainstorming sessions should do away with that kind of expectation setting, instead allowing the creatives to explore and come up with ideas organically.

02. Use analogies

Chan and Schunn also noticed that analogies were used often by these design teams. For instance, one team was tasked with working on the design of a printer, and were thinking about how it might open and close. In discussing the mechanism, they sued the analogy of a vcr, then a garage door and then a roller door, all in the space of a few minutes as they developed their ideas.

Analogies tie in with the idea of taking baby steps. It might be difficult to explain the big idea that you have, but you can probably break it down into smaller ideas that might already exist and that you can readily describe.

Using analogies also allows others an easy window into your head. People are generally not very good at describing ideas straight from their thoughts. Instead we prefer to use metaphors, as these are a common theme to all people. By using analogy and metaphor we can bypass direct description that can be time-consuming, and use a common idea instead.

There is a downside to this that goes along with the anchoring from earlier. If you give people an analogy of what you want them to design, then that can get stuck in their head, and they will not be able to move away from that idea. Instead, you have to give the creatives and designers space to explore the ideas themselves and come up with their own analogies.

03. Allow people time

Pressure is a killer for creativity, whereas given them time can help foster ideas and creative thinking. Stuffing people in a room and tell them ‘Go!’ is really the worst thing for original thought. From her study of employees of top companies, Amabile found that,

instead of running brainstorming sessions in big groups, the best ideas were when a few employees got together naturally to discuss a problem.

In these smaller, impromptu meetings, ideas were more rapidly generated and the ideas were more creative. If you think about this, it makes sense. The pressure was off for these meetings and everyone feels more comfortable talking to just one or two others. Conversation can flow more naturally, it is unlikely that just one person will take control of the conversation, and criticism can be given in a more discreet way. All of which makes these smaller brainstorming sessions much better than their bigger cousins.

These small groups can then bring their ideas to a larger meeting where they can talk as one (meaning that individuals do not feel so singled-out of an idea is bad) and where a more critical feedback of different groups ideas can be given.

If you want to run a brainstorming session, giving people as much warning and time to prepare as possible is ideal. They can initially think through ideas in their heads, dismissing the most obvious and most wanting, then move to smaller groups to discuss the initial ideas and grow their small ideas. Then you should take the ideas to the bigger group, where all developed ideas can be discussed and critiqued.

04. Brainwrite instead of Brainstorm

This seems to be the secret to successful brainstorming – essentially don’t do it. Sitting a big room trying to come up with ideas is not going to work. Discussing and critiquing those ideas in a group is great, but just not the actual thinking. Divorcing the idea generation aspect of brainstorming from the critique is they only way to get truly great creative ideas.

To do that, Professor Leigh Thompson thinks we should brainwrite instead of brainstorm. Leigh, Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management says that if everyone writes down their ideas before the meeting, and them comes to discuss them, it gets rid of all the difficulty in discussing simple ideas, as well as people trying to game the system by talking up an easy solution and then staying silent for the rest of the meeting.

By having an initial ideas period before the meeting, it gives people the time to think without the pressure of the brainstorming session

and to come up with a wide array of ideas before the meeting starts.

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How to run a great brainstorming session

So what to do if you want designers, creatives and all others within your organization come up with great ideas in a brainstorming session?

Well, give them plenty of warning. The prevailing wisdom is that you have to give people time to work on their ideas before they get anywhere near that big conference room and bare whiteboard. Then they can start sprouting ideas individually, before moving to smaller groups to discuss them further.Hopefully in these small meeting they will take those small ‘baby steps’, developing ideas into something bigger that they will then collectively bring to the group.

In the brainstorming sessions themselves, constructive criticism should be given so that the group as a whole can move on to the best and most creative solutions to the problems at hand. OK, so this is all a lot harder than stuffing people in a room with some coffee and cookies and locking the door. But brainstorming sessions where originally envisaged as a way to get the best, most creative ideas out of a group of people. As they stand they do not work. Bu they can. By following a few simple ideas to foster creativity, you can grow small ideas into great ones and have brainstorming sessions that are true whirlwinds.