Why it’s time to stop brainstorming

If you've ever thought group brainstorming sessions produce half-baked ideas, you aren’t alone. Formally devised by advertising executive Alex Osborn, the idea is that a group should use “the brain to storm a creative problem... doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective”. With everyone talking, without judgement or criticism, Osborn claimed striking results: a team of ten was able to come up with 87 ideas in 90 minutes, he said, as brainstorming turned staff into imagination powerhouses.

But subsequent research has poured cold water over such hyperbole. A 1958 Yale study found that brainstorming actually made individuals less creative. More recent research suggests that brainstorming’s central precept – no idea should be criticised – is in fact its critical flaw. In other words, debating ideas stimulates more of them.

Yet if brainstorming won’t solve your intractable business problem, what can you do? Here are two alternatives.

Dr Tony McCaffrey’s research has added to the miserable picture surrounding brainstorming. First, sharing one idea at a time by talking, he says, is hugely inefficient. Second, extroverts always dominate introverts, even with talented facilitators trying to stimulate the flow of ideas. Instead, McCaffrey proposes a new method for solving problems within groups – brainswarming. Built on insights into how ants signal to each other by laying trails of pheromones, with successful gatherers silently letting others know where to find the food, brainswarming challenges the very foundation of brainstorming. “Why do we need to talk in the first place?” McCaffrey asks.

How does it work? First, you draw up a chart, with the central goal at the top and the resources available to solve it at the bottom. No one says a word, but the group is encouraged to stick post-it notes on the chart, breaking down the problem. McCaffrey’s research suggests that naturally top-down thinkers gravitate towards re-defining the goal. The bottom-ups, meanwhile, consider the ways in which resources might be used. In an ideal session, this careful refinement will mean the goal and resources slowly draw closer together and eventually meet. In a pilot study, McCaffrey’s alternative produced 115 ideas in 15 minutes, versus the 100 ideas per hour for a traditional brainstorming session.

While brainstorming proponents might tell you to think outside the box, it could well be better to do the opposite. Jacob Goldenberg and Drew Boyd’s book Inside the Box argues that it is utterly wrong to assume that the best way to find an original solution to a problem is to make random connections. Instead, they say, it’s easier to be creative if you stay inside the world you know.

To achieve this, they have devised Systematic Innovative Thinking, a set of templates that avoid dependence on intuitive creativity. Subtracting a seemingly essential element from a product or service, bringing together unrelated tasks or functions, copying something and then multiplying it, these all produce deceptively simple results.

As an example of multiplication, Gilette’s 1971 introduction of the twin blade razor – which gives a closer shave because one blade pulls up the hair, and the other cuts it off – might look like an obvious step on from the single blade. But Boyd and Goldenberg argue that such “inside the box” techniques, and their results, actually represent a complete retraining of how the brain works. Instead of “establishing a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions”, we should do the opposite. “Take an abstract, conceptual solution and find a problem that it can solve.”