Guerilla Innovation

Fast Company’s Brainstorming Fail

Brainstorm Memev2Fast Company Article “Brainstorming is Dumb” Misses the Point

Brainstorming, Done Properly, Is Not a Tool, It’s A Multi-Step Process

Here we go again. And yet another major publication publishes a misleading article about brainstorming — Brainstorming is Dumb. This happens about every six months. This time it’s Fast Company. The article gets a few things right, but misses the big picture, and smears a giant of the field, Alex Osborn. The headline is dead wrong, but wonderfully provocative. Fast Company missed an opportunity to inform more fully at the very least. The omission is so large one wonders if they have a fact checker on staff.

The big picture the article misses is that brainstorming is not a single tool, it’s a system. They mention Osborn in the article but don’t accept his definition of brainstorming. The article accepts and uses the common, and inaccurate definition of brainstorming. This may have been a deliberate choice because there is conflicting data about brainstorming, and it’s wonky to sort it out. Still, they might have mentioned the whole other point of view and indicated to readers it’s not just a simple choice of brainstorming alone or as a group, or writing versus spoken out loud.

By not mentioning any other aspect of brainstorming, or alluding to the various brainstorming systems, they muddy the waters. The article conflates one highly specific academic study with the failure of all brainstorming. That’s a big miss in my view.

Brainstorming as a technique is beside the point. As is brainwriting — which the article espouses as the better tool. Both techniques have their place, but neither should stand alone. For results in idea generation you need a system, a framework, and a wide, deep chest of tools. That’s what Annie Sneed and Fast Company miss with their article.

How can you generate great ideas with a more systemic approach to “brainstorming”? If you don’t care about the wonky aspects where I write the article Fast Company should have published, skip directly to the headline below, A System to Get Great Ideas. 

The Wonky Stuff About Brainstorming

Brainstorming Is All Wrong appears in the July 28th issue, written by Annie Sneed. The message of the article is that brainstorming doesn’t work, and if you want more and better ideas  you should try “brainwriting”. It’s a bit simplistic this article, call it Pop Brainstorming Lit.

It’s absolutely true that the brainwriting technique works better at getting more ideas than what people call brainstorming, at least in the test-tube context of the studies the article discusses. About the study: the fact that the test bed were technologists might skew results. Techy types, particularly engineers, tend to be introverts. As such they would prefer writing over speaking — but I’ll grant the author and the researcher the benefit of the doubt and say, sure, brainwriting is usually more effective than classic shout out loud brainstorming. This has been my experience in the real world as well. Where this article goes wrong is that brainstorming (for professional practitioners and those who really keep up with the literature and smart practice) is not just the poorly executed group technique that many organizations know and use. Professional innovators already use brainwriting — and a vast array of other tools — to brainstorm/generate ideas. Brainstorming done well is so much more than the shout out loud technique. Brainstorming done well is a holistic system of problem solving. A good system includes exploration before brainstorming and action planning afterwards.

The Culture the Pop Literature Around Brainstorming Ignores

Writers as well-intentioned as Annie Sneed (by all accounts a respected science writer) don’t know there is a whole culture related to how organizations come up with ideas and innovate. That culture has been refining models, processes, and techniques since the early 50’s. There are incredibly sophisticated specialists within organizations (like P&G, Whirlpool, Allstate, and other savvy innovators). Universities like Notre Dame’s Mendoza Business School teach innovation system and theory — so this data is out there. In major corporations there are people whose whole jobs are about researching the market and coming up with the best possible brainstorming platforms or questions. There are trend watchers, focus group moderators, market analyzers, brand managers, and many others who dedicate their lives to coming up with better ideas that can lead to innovation. They are process wonks, and they understand brainstorming is more than just one or two techniques.

Seasoned corporate practitioners will mostly look at the Brainstorming Is All Wrong article and laugh. They’ll laugh because this big insight about brainwriting is very old news. They’ll also notice the bigger picture it completely misses. It’s so far from “best practice” that those inside the culture will write the piece off as hopelessly clueless. To be fair, Fast Company isn’t a scholarly magazine and the target is probably not seasoned innovation or problem solving professionals. If the target is corporate newbies, for them, yes, this is news. And if you’re doing crap brainstorming now, this will help you. But wow, this is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to effective idea generation. If the article had at least said something like “and there’s so much more to learn about brainstorming systems” and provided a link or two it would have been more balanced and accurate.

Define Brainstorming

Many people think that brainstorming is gathering a group of people into a room with a flip chart and Post-It’s and jamming ideas out loud. Yes, that can be part of brainstorming, one small part. But it’s a myth and a widespread misconception to think that’s all there is. Professional brainstorming facilitators, like myself, have long used brainwriting as part of a more broadly defined way of brainstorming (I learned the brainwriting tool in 1990). And brainwriting is only one of quite a few techniques that enhance brainstorming results.

It drives me a bit mad to see a headline that says “It’s not that people working together are never good, it’s just that the technique that Osborn developed was lousy.” Mercy, what tripe!

Osborn’s Genius Was About A Broader Framework

Osborn didn’t invent a technique at all, he developed a framework (with Sid Parnes) called “CPS” — more formally known as Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving. The CPS framework was never intended to have only one idea generation technique (shout out loud brainstorming as a group). It was always meant to be a combination of group and individual activity. Shout out loud brainstorming is what the untrained masses adopted, sadly leaving out the best ways to do even just that technique. Most people who brainstorm have no idea what the guidelines are for doing it properly. They are unaware of the more comprehensive brainstorming system Osborn-Parnes designed. That’s one reason a lot of brainstorming simply doesn’t work — they’re not doing it right. If you want to know how to do it right, get the training in CPS.

And It Keeps On Changing and Adapting

CPS is not a static framework, it’s an open source system and people are adding new tools all the time. KILN has added kinesthetic, trend-based mash-ups for example, in their IdeaKeg subscription service. Design Thinking is a modern re-implementation of CPS that puts an emphasis on empathy with users, but at its roots, it’s a three phase framework just like CPS. Synectics also builds on CPS. Brainstorming practitioners get together to share new tools to use with the CPS framework every year at the Creative Problem Solving Institute (aka “sipsee” now in it’s 63rd year, and founded by Alex Osborn himself). Newbies from around the world learn the system that supports brainstorming every June at CPSI.

Problem Framing Is The Most Essential Element of Brainstorming (and it’s ignored in the pop lit)

One of the biggest problems with poorly done brainstorming is that there’s not enough preparation taking place before the idea generation step. Many people who think brainstorming doesn’t work have experienced crap brainstorming where the question at hand was either too vague, or simply off target. Getting the problem frame right — a “How Might We” question — is key. Getting an intriguing question is the number one thing to do before you even get into a room to brainstorm. Osborn-Parnes has three steps before you generate ideas (Objectives-Visioning, Fact Finding/Research, and Problem Framing). If you don’t do them, you’re going to have poor results. You need to imagine a best possible outcome, do as much research as time allows, and properly frame a question first. Then brainstorm (that is, do idea generation). For a complete guide to CPS read my business novel, Jack’s Notebook. For a brief summary, read this.

Sorting Out the Academic Research, and What Was Not Even Mentioned

The Fast Company article reads well because it cites evidence. Well, it cites a bit of evidence. It talks about the myriad of studies that “prove” brainstorming doesn’t work, and yet dear readers, there is also a myriad of academic studies that prove that it does. Again, it depends on how you define brainstorming. The studies mentioned, but not actually cited or listed in the article, usually refer to a group of various studies done by Yale or Cornell academics. They tested students jamming ideas in various ways. They did not test Osborn-Parnes brainstorming, they tested un-facilitated, untrained, non-teams of unmotivated students. So, what we learn from those studies is that if you get a bunch of students in a room, working on a problem they don’t give a darn about, and don’t train them in any way, or enforce Osborn’s brainstorming rules, they don’t do such a good job of jamming ideas as a group. Of course they don’t! Realize that nearly all brainstorming research makes the classic mistake of testing with non-trained, un-facilitated, unmotivated teams. This is the “proof” that brainstorming doesn’t work.

The new research by Paul Paulus at the University of Texas at least attempts to study idea generation in a real workplace. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Sneed generalizes this very specific research to condemn a system she doesn’t know or understand. The Paulus study is a good one, and, as a practical matter not that helpful because an experienced facilitator is going to do BOTH brainstorming alone, AND as a group, and use tools like brainwriting as well as other tools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting study and worthy of review, but to experienced practitioners it’s a bit ho hum. And it doesn’t mean Brainstorming doesn’t work, or is dumb. It means a particular kind of brainstorming is better in some contexts than other types of brainstorming. But I get that’s not as exciting a title.

Here’s a starting point on the research around how CPS (brainstorming as defined by Osborn) is an effective method, by Scott Isaksen, Ph.D. You’ll see that Isaksen cites many other scholars who have all done legit academic research around how the CPS framework works and how it’s effective.  You might also have a look at the work of Min Basadur, Ph,D, who has done academic studies with more of a business slant. His work at P&G was (and is) enormously successful, and it’s all based on Osborn-Parnes CPS. Basadur added his own set of tools to CPS and he does a particularly good job with using Challenge Mapping as a way to better frame the question for idea generation. In fact he’s added so much to the system that some folks call it the Osborn-Parnes-Basadur Creative Problem Solving Model. Gerard Puccio, Ph.D. has also added significant thinking about the model and developed the FourSight assessment as a related tool. There is much more to say about the huge body of work supporting brainstorming as defined by Osborn, but I’ll leave it for another post.

So that’s the end of my rant about the article. I feel better now. Continue reading if you’re interested in a system for results in brainstorming. See my blog as a resource for all sorts of additional information about how to do it properly.

A System To Get Great Ideas

Okay, I’m going to keep this as simple as possible. If you want great ideas, here’s what you need to do. And yes, this is how I define brainstorming. And the overarching tip is, Learn CPS.

How Brainstorming is Normally Done, see these assumptions as problems and limitations you don’t need to live by:

  1. It’s done as a group.
  2. People are motivated, maybe
  3. There’s a loosely defined (or overly defined) problem frame
  4. Research may or may not have been done prior to the session, participants may have notice or not
  5. Brainstorming to most folks is a one time in-person session done as a group
  6. Techniques are limited to facilitator charting and Post-It notes, and it’s done out loud
  7. The facilitator is less than fully trained or experienced

Getting results means challenging all the above. In order to Do Brainstorming Effectively, here’s what to do:

A. To get the problem frame right, use techniques like Challenge Mapping and KILN’s IdeaKeg. At the very least, diverge on many possible questions, one of which will be selected to be posed in the brainstorm (in the idea generation step). The more you reframe the more likely you’ll get an insight about what the problem really is all about. This is so essential, and so often not done, that it gives “brainstorming” a black eye. This needs done well ahead of a brainstorming session. In fact, this is a divergent thinking session in it’s own right. This addresses #3 above, having a focused intriguing challenge frame, in other words, a better question to answer.

B. Use techniques that have people working alone AND use techniques that have people working together. Leverage the research and get the best of both world’s, have folks jam ideas alone AND together. Use Shout Out brainstorming and brainwriting, AND other techniques as well, like Improv Stories, World Cafe type discussions, and brainwalking. If you don’t know these tools that’s why you need to hire an experienced facilitator who does (see item F below). Or, get the training and learn how to do them yourself. This addresses #1 and #6 above.

C. Work together in person as a group AND work alone virtually. Who says the group has to be in one place? Many teams and work groups are scattered around the globe. Get ideas from everybody using virtual system (aka Idea Management Systems, “IMS”). If you can’t afford an IMS, use email, or Google Docs. Then meet and do more as a group together in a classic session. Let’s get away from the concept that brainstorming must be done in a single session. This addresses #1 & #5 above.

D. Leverage time. Brainstorming should not be just one session. It should happen over a period of time. At least a few days, and as long as a month. Great ideas happen when you give people time to think. Incubation needs to happen if you want breakthrough ideas. Prepare people for a session by giving out homework assignments and challenge exploration missions. Again, a successful idea generation effort is a combination of activities, exercises, and events — within a system. This addresses #5 above.

E. Use as many types of idea expression as possible. Talk, Write, Prototype, Draw, do Murals, Mind-Maps, Sculptures, Improv Comedy, and even Dance. When you think about it, Post-It Note Brainstorming is the most boring of all these lovely options to generate ideas. Brainwriting isn’t that exciting either, but as I said they both have their place. This addresses #6 above.

F. Use a skilled facilitator to plan the effort and execute the plan. Unless your internal team leader really knows brainstorming you are setting yourself up for mediocrity. Planning and managing a session that includes the ideas in this list, and more, takes expertise and experience. You won’t believe the difference. This addresses #7 above.

G. Use people who care about solving the problem or creating something new. Don’t assume people care or are motivated. If you suspect they are not you have work to do before you do brainstorming to somehow create that sense of urgency. Giving a damn makes a huge difference. When people do give a damn they’ll think about something all night and all day. They will come up with great ideas. If they don’t care, they won’t push for fresh snow and you’ll end up with a lot of obvious crapola. Getting people to care is a book topic, but think about simply measuring their output and making it part of their evaluation and compensation. That will get their attention. If you want to change a negative culture, do projects. Projects are the only thing that actually changes culture.

It’s not as simple to get results with brainstorming as using one technique or the other. It’s a system, a process, and it needs close attention to be done well. Please write or call if you need assistance in doing a better job with this vital step in innovation.


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