- Charting on an easel?
- Post-It notes? Or White Board doodles?
- A vigorous debate or discussion?
- Wall murals with Mind-Maps and other Graphic Facilitation tools?
- Virtual ideation using an online system?
- A wander in the woods thinking? Other types of “excursions?”
- A group of people exchanging ideas?
- An intensive one or two day session of idea generation
- Improvisation games or other kinesthetic exercises to stimulate ideas?
- How the originator defined it, that is, Alex Osborn in “Your Creative Power” and “Applied Imagination”
- A generic term for idea generation that includes 1-10 and more…
Those of you who read this blog often, know I got caught in something of a flame war last summer with regard to the claim that Brainstorming Doesn’t Work.
Because I define Brainstorming, currently, as #10, I would claim it does work. This definition includes participant training, coaching on when to defer judgment, a neutral facilitator, and the use of various tools and techniques. Most of the academic research on the effectiveness of Brainstorming does not include these requirements. As a result, even Wikipedia says that it is not as effective as other techniques for group idea generation.
If you define it as any other item in my list than #10 or #11 – the claim that it doesn’t work is fair.
More people than not are going to define it with one or more of #1 through #9. The Cambridge dictionary definition — #7 – is simply a “group of people exchanging ideas”. This is a really bad definition because it leaves out brainstorming alone, and it does not include any training or structure. Brainstorming needs to be thought of as more than a group technique, and even Osborn didn’t think of it this way. Brainwriting is another technique that ought to be included under the rubric of Brainstorming, and yet typically is not.
It would be easy to say, alright, let’s call “formal brainstorming” (#10) — the kind that has been proven to actually work — something else, like “Ideation” or “Idea Generation” or “an Idea Workshop”. I’m not a fan of these terms, although I am forced to use them. Ideation sounds pretentious, and, it’s polarizing. Some like the word, some absolutely hate it. About once a week somebody Tweets how much they hate “Ideation”. Hate is not conducive to good ideation! Idea Generation is a good descriptive term, but it sounds mechanical to me, and, it has little pizzazz. Idea Workshop, well, it’s alright, but it implies in-person, and not all ideation is done in a workshop setting.
I still like the word Brainstorming. It connotes a bit of excitement. I utterly refuse to stop using the word because some say it’s not politically correct. Have you heard? It’s offensive to those who have epilepsy and other brain disorders. While I sympathize with those afflicted, we are simply not talking about you. It’s called a metaphor. Thoughtshowers? I think not.
I totally agree with the various pundits, scholars, and consultants who are calling for a better way to generate ideas. Sperry’s old right brain/left brain model is somewhat outdated, new brain research tell us that ideas are a result of new connections made in the brain. The kind of “brainstorming” that gets done in meetings around the world, day in and day out, is usually #1, #2, or #3 in my list above. I would suggest that while not completely ineffective as a way to generate ideas, it is best to think of these fundamental techniques as “a start.” The brain gets activated when we ask it a question, so, these starter techniques are where a journey in idea generation begins. And, not where it should end! To get to a good idea, we need to incubate and give the brain time to form a new pattern and create a new connection. Various tools and techniques can, and should, be used. The likelihood that this will happen instantly in the context of a board room is low. What people say doesn’t work is not complete Brainstorming, call it StartStorming. Or BrainStarting. Or BoardRoomStorming.
I’m tempted to be a smart alec and say, well, all those things listed above are just… thinking. While that’s true, it’s a particular kind of thinking, a quest for “new” thinking in order to solve a problem. So we still need a word for it.
So how about this. Let’s go back to calling it Brainstorming. But let’s re-define brainstorming as any technique ( including all those listed above, and others) that can be brought into play — by a group or an individual — to come up with a great idea. With this definition, if your Brainstorming doesn’t work, it’s not because the method doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t use enough tools and techniques to get it to work.
Let the flame wars begin!