Idea Generation is Not Efficient (and you don't want it to be)

I really have to say something about this notion that brainstorming / idea generation / ideation can be made into an efficient process. I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces on this lately, this idea it can be made more efficient, so you only get “good” ideas. If only it were so…

I’ll grant you that sometimes the questions posed for an “idea campaign” are too generalized and therefore rake in a lot of useless ideas.

I’ll also grant you that converging on a few good ideas when you have thousands to wade through is a challenge.

I totally understand why an organization would be seeking a more efficient way to arrive at a nice small batch of really good ideas.

The bad news is, Idea Generation is Not Efficient.

And you don’t want it to be. Here’s why:

1.) Putting limits, breaks, guard rails, and tightly framing what kind of ideas you want leads to incremental ideas. It will get you a smaller list. And, the list you’ll get will be exactly what you asked for — ideas within a defined frame — nearly always incremental ideas. Breakthrough ideas are often the best solutions to a particular challenges. Your tight frame will almost guarantee you Won’t Get Them. Academic research backs this assertion up — if you lead folks down a mental garden path, they will walk/think your way.

2. Research shows that quantity of ideas leads to quality ideas. Osborn said it first, and many academics have studied and verified this. Even if you have a very focused idea generation question or “platform” the mind tends to progress through three stages: a.) first thoughts are usually obvious, mediocre ideas that have already been thought of, b.) the second stage gets you slightly better ideas that are starting to be interesting but are still mostly incremental, and c.) finally! truly different innovative out-of-frame or breakthrough ideas. It takes time (not a one day thing), effort, and a lot thinking and dreaming to get to that third stage. In my view, there is no way around this. I’ve heard people try to jump to this third stage by asking only for out-of-the-box or “anti-conventional” ideas. Good luck. The brain, usually, can’t jump straight to third base, it needs to be “scaffolded” to get there. There is dangerous shock treatment (not the electrical kind) which might short circuit the process — more on that below.

3. Divergence and Convergence at the same time is brain inefficient. Imagination and analysis aren’t the same headset. If you frame what you want precisely and explain to your resource group you are only looking for ideas that fit, here’s what happens. Your resource group will be editing their thoughts, and throwing away ideas or avoiding “off topic” paths of thinking. Or, worse yet, some will hit the mental wall immediately and not be able to think of one thing. It’s hard to be truly divergent in your thinking when you are constantly editing your thinking. This is stepping on the brakes and the gas at the same time. Part of the value of allowing all ideas is it gets people into a divergent flow, and you simply have to accept the early stage thinking. Some of those thrown away ideas and mental paths might be gems — but you’ll never know will you? That’s corporate IP thrown in the toilet, money flushed down the drain, for the sake of efficiency.

So what’s the solution? It’s not one thing. But here are a few ideas:

* Better, more provocative, idea generation questions — that walk the line between being too constrictive and too open-ended. It’s a fine art doing this — hire an experienced facilitator.

* You can allow for a great deal of open-ended divergence within a small group — to create those better idea generation questions. Then, use a slightly more restrictive, but still provocative question for the broader group.

* A good Idea Management System is also helpful for post idea generation idea sorting, ranking, and filtering — use one. Consider also forming a convergence team that starts sorting concurrent to the real time/virtual session.

* Surprising and strategic stimuli for idea generation that shock the mind to a faster path to that third stage. This is, possibly, the only magic bullet for efficiency. Finding the right stimulus (that allows for unique conceptual or trend-based mash-ups) is a process in and of itself, and a time consuming one. And, it works best with experienced idea generators, people who practice often. Newbies or once-a-year-ideators will be surprised too, but won’t be able to do anything with it.

The solutions I suggest will be more efficient than an idea campaign/suggestion box free-for-all, but you’ll still get lots of ideas.

And that’s exactly what you want.


    • Awesome! This definitely needed to be said!

      I would say that idea generation IS already efficient based on the exact things you pointed out here. Efficiency is the relation between effectiveness and time. The more effective something is and the less time it takes, the more efficient it is.

      In this case, I would say that these processes are extremely effective as I see them and use them daily. So effective that they completely outweigh the amount of time it takes to do them. I would rather spend a little time diverging and converging then use another method that might not get me the absolute best ideas and don’t take as long, because I simply wouldn’t have the best idea without the time, and the best idea is most usually worth the extra time. Making idea generation with these processes very efficient!

    • There’s this strange idea that, once you’ve gotten to a good idea and traced it’s logical usefulness, that you could have arrived there more efficiently by logical means. But you didn’t. And you can’t.

      You can fall in love with the messiness of having lots of ideas too. Of course, the proof is when something pops out of the mess and it’s really useful. The kicker is that recognizing a diamond in the rough is a perceptual skill…

      • An often overlooked element is that final step of selection. You can do an amazing job of ideation and lose all your good work with thoughtless or unimaginative convergence. Thanks for your comment Franis!

    • Sniff sniff…. Do I smell reference to some recent papers and articles of mine here? Great!

      Firstly, Greg, let me just say this is a great article and thought provoking. And if my provoking theories on anticonventional thinking played a part in inspiring the article, I am delighted!

      Secondly, let me put a question to you: if a prospective client of yours told you, “we’ve been using our company’s founder’s process successfully for decades. It works just fine. Research shows there’s nothing wrong with it! So I am not interested in new ideas or making changes!” how would you, as a creativity/innovation consultant, respond?

      Curiously, for a business that tells our clients they need to keep innovating to keep ahead of the competition, the creativity and innovation business is remarkably reluctant to change its own ways. This is particularly true of the guardians of creative problem solving (CPS).

      I confess that in my first article or two on anticonventional thinking, I took an overly aggressive tone towards CPS and I regret that. I was aiming to be provocative — and it worked. But the truth is I do not want to claim that CPS is no good and anticonventional thinking is good. Rather they are two tool sets among a range of tool sets (such as TRIZ, mind-mapping, etc) that should be available to creativity facilitators.

      That said, a growing body of research is throwing many aspects of CPS up to question. Now, Greg, you wrote “Research shows that quantity of ideas leads to quality ideas”. Could you site the research, please? I’ve heard this assumption stated again and again, but I’ve not seen any empirical demonstration of this hypothesis. That said, I’ve not explicitly looked for it either.

      On the other hand, more than 45 years ago Messrs. Gerlach, Schutz, Baker, Mazer had groups of people generate ideas in a controlled environment. One control group was given no instructions. Another group was told that they would be scored on two criteria: how unique or different their ideas were and how valuable their ideas were. Time after time, the second group came up with fewer ideas. But these ideas were judged to be better and more creative than the control groups’!(1) This has been demonstrated again and again.

      Why is this the case? We know that the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions of the brain act as a censor to our thoughts. In most people, this keeps generated ideas focused on narrowly on the challenge they are addressing. Presumably, when specifically told to generate creative ideas, this region will act to censor more conventional ideas and let more creative ideas through. This has not explicitly been researched, but can be interpreted from the research.(2)

      Then there is the sacred cow of CPS: no criticism of ideas. This, it has been believed, would inhibit creative thinking and cause people to repress ideas. This is so ingrained, that no one thought to put it to test until recently. As it happens, research by Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth of the University of California at Berkeley suggests that rules of any kind inhibit creative thinking during brainstorming. Moreover, they found that “exposure to a persistent minority dissenter sparks more flexible, open-minded, and multi-perspective thinking which, in turn, produces less conformist and more creative outcomes.” In other words, criticism can actually improve creativity during a brainstorming session.(3)

      However, this suggests that divergence (idea generating) and convergence (criticism) can efficiency happen concurrently in the mind and produce better results. (bear in mind the word “suggest” has been used here and not “proven”).

      All of this suggests that some key assumptions we have been making about CPS are flawed. We need to acknowledge this, accept that CPS is not perfect and accept that innovation comes from challenging our assumptions and experimenting with new techniques.

      My anticonventional thinking is a new technique. It is largely unproven. I acknowledge that. But following its debut at the European Conference of Creativity and Innovation in Faro a few weeks ago, a number of facilitators have promised to give it a try — or at least try elements of it and get back to me.

      Nevertheless, the fact that it has stoked considerable debate delights me!

      Jeffrey Baumgartner


      (1) V S Gerlach, Schutz, Baker, Mazer, (1964) “Effects of Variations in Test Directions on Originality Test Response”, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 55 No 2, pp 79-84.

      (2) For a more detailed explanation of this effect and the research that revealed, read this
      interesting paper: Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical
      Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.

      (3) Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The “Rules” of Brainstorming: An
      Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment
      Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley)

      • Jeff, warmest greetings, your sense of smell rivals a very good and loyal hunting dog my father once had (we loved that dog more than most of the rest of our family), and yes, I was responding, in part, to your recent piece.

        But not just your piece, also, bits and pieces from Stephen Shapiro’s new book “Best Practices are Stupid”, and others as well. It’s kind of a trend this seeking of efficiency in ideation, and it’s not wrong — it’s just not so easy. Your new tool is interesting, promising, and I’m not even looking for verification. I don’t have time. I try a lot of tools and see what works, and let the academics who have more time, study and verify. By the time they get it verified I’m onto the next thing. My clients can’t wait for proof beyond the results they’re getting. And frankly, if they’re getting results they could give a fig about academic verification.

        Thank you for your positive response, honestly, I have nothing but respect for the incredible work you do. You’re clearly an advanced thinker in this field. I can’t wait to try anti-conventional thinking as a tool, I will. I hope you don’t think I’m a “guardian of CPS”. CPS is a good framework, but certainly not the only one. I rarely adhere lock-step to CPS. And, I sometimes break the rules or guidelines associated with it (in my practice I do things that nobody else does, and while they are not CPS, they typically don’t violate the basic principals). Still, I’ve found that if you want people to be generative, emotionally, it does not help to debate, argue, and mix divergence with convergence. It may be ephemeral, but “flow’ is what often happens when you give people a break from constant judgement, and flow is what often gets you to breakthrough. But hey, show me a better way, and I’ll do it. I don’t care as much about process as I care about results.

        When I see people doing this organic kind of problem solving (I won’t even call it “brainstorming”) I usually see a complete waste of time. Not many ideas get put forth, not many good ideas result, and a lot of bad feelings happen. Quantity of ideas works in practice, for me, because it takes this “exercise” to get people to new and different. I seek short cuts to this and believe me, if I find one, I’ll use it. I’m making my own efforts to invent stimuli that “shock” people into spontaneous great ideas (see

        I’m also a believer in multiple techniques, multiple modes of experiencing challenges. If your technique works, great, but virtually no technique is good enough to ideate around all day.

        Your new technique and assumption busting feels a lot like “going back to square one” — and not a true advance, I could be wrong. I’ll give you an example. Prior to my ‘creative training’ training (actually to be truthful, concurrent to my early training) I was a director of a company developing a new software product for the healthcare industry, circa 93. I had 3 partners who were very smart guys, one a Harvard MBA, and two doctors from Yale, and Penn State. Our problem solving sessions, meetings, were essentially long format “my cousin Vinny” style arguments. It was brutal. It got personal. We screamed at each other at times. We broke every rule around deliberate creativity that existed (we critiqued immediately, we did not separate divergence from convergence, we did not have a large quantity of ideas). Somehow, someway, with a great deal of pain and anxiety, we arrived at a good result, I suspect mostly because of sheer talent and deep motivation. We got a bit lucky too. And while we had some success, it left deep scars. This kind of ideation and innovation is not for the faint of heart, I would daresay, it’s borders on insanity. From that point forward I looked for a better way to address problem solving and innovation and CPS and associated tools fit the bill. It’s rarely let me down as a results oriented framework, and it’s Never let me down as a tool for rational, humanistic, problem solving and innovation.

        This is my reality — not some academic playground. When somebody shows me a rational way to generate good ideas faster, I’ll use it. Until then, I don’t need to acknowledge flaws in CPS assumptions, because they’re working for me — and my clients.

        To answer your question, if a founder of a company said: “we’ve been using our company’s founder’s process successfully for decades. It works just fine. Research shows there’s nothing wrong with it!” My response would be…’God bless you and continued success.’ I’d walk away because there would be no point in hiring me. I arrive on the scene, usually, when there is a problem at hand that is not readily dealt with by the tried and true (discussion, argument, debate). If everything is working people don’t need me, nor are they motivated to try new tools and techniques.

        I’ll dig out my papers and references and get back to you with specific references for the quantity gets you quality assertion. It has been ages since reading that stuff, but my hands-on experiences suggest it is true. Like you, I’ve sought all kinds of short cuts to better ideas faster, and the truth is, I’m either a crap facilitator, or those short cuts, largely, don’t exist.

        The brain function research you mention sounds interesting but the truth is, for me, is it’s still a mystery how that works. I do know that sometimes when we “don’t think” spontaneous ideas pop into our mind, uncensored… how do you explain that? This, to me, is the magic. As a trained improviser what I notice about spontaneous thought is that it has more to do with being open and present then it does with any kind of rational/logical thinking at all.

        Thanks for your extensive and well thought out comment Jeff. More to come I’m thinking.


Posted in Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Idea Generation, Idea Management, Innovation