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Why Brainstorming Often Delivers Ho-Hum Ideas and What You Can Do To Improve Your Results

I have seen a lot of innovation initiatives get started by bringing together a whole bunch of people from inside a company to “brainstorm” on the next big thing. Unfortunately, most of the time, these brainstorming sessions provide very little breakthrough ideas. More often than not it’s the same old ideas rehashed over and over. The innovation initiative stalls and management concludes brainstorming is a huge waste of time and effort.

Does that mean brainstorming doesn’t work for ideation?

There has been lots written about the effectiveness of brainstorming. The long and the short of it is that brainstorming is a tool. When used correctly in the right situation, it can yield impressive results. But like other group collaboration tools, when used incorrectly, it becomes a frustrating waste of time and energy.

Brainstorming basics

According to Wikipedia , the term Brainstorming was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book “Applied Imagination.” He was frustrated by employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns. In response, he began hosting group-thinking sessions and discovered a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas produced by employees. (see figure 1: Actively Conducting Brainstorming).

By following a set of rules (focus on quantity, withhold judgment, welcome unusual ideas, and combine and improve ideas), Osborn asserted that a group could produce both more and better ideas than the same number of individuals working alone.  In theory, following these rules would reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity of the group.


Figure 1: Actively Conducting Brainstorming – Source Wikipedia

Group Dynamics: Theory doesn’t hold up under practice

One of the main reasons brainstorming doesn’t create the promised results is due to group dynamics. Left uncheck, the most vocal few (often the boss and sales people) dominate the conversation with the remaining majority contributing very little for fear of being judged and rocking the boat.

Instead of taking the wisdom of the collective brain, the Highest-Paid-Person’s-Opinion (HiPPO) wins out. The troops are left wondering why they were asked to participate in the exercise. After all their opinions don’t count, the decision was already made before wasting additional time on group “participation”. Talk about poor outcomes!

Starting from a blank slate is not the best starting place for brainstorming

Another reason brainstorming (and most other collaborative creative sessions) fails is because of unclear goals and objectives for conducting the brainstorm. No real objectives are set as to what will be accomplished, no frame or boundaries as to what will be brainstormed, and what action items will be assigned afterwards to move innovation along.

Some level of direction and boundaries are needed to guide brainstorming activities. Without this direction, and a facilitator to keep the participants on topic, brainstorming will turn into an non-productive chat. Most likely old ideas that have been hashed out before will result – leading to more ho-hum products and little innovation.

There is also a tendency to use brainstorming as a substitute to creating and managing an ideation system. Brainstorming is just a tool to be used in a series of steps in discovering, formulating, and transforming good ideas into winning new products (the innovation framework).

Brainstorming as a tool, works well in the very front edge of discovery, as well as solving specific design problems and everything in-between. But don’t expect it be very useful in managing the front-end of innovation. You need a good innovation (idea-to-launch) framework for that job.

Getting the most out of you brainstorming session

Brainstorming is a structured methodology of thinking creatively. There are a set of rules, protocols, conduct and conversational flow that need to be followed. It is this structure that allows a group of people to think openly and collectively on solving specific problems.

Having an experienced facilitator set the stage and manage the flow of ideas will go a long way to getting great results from brainstorming. And practice, practice, practice. Only with practice and feedback will your team learn how to use the tool effectively.

As we discussed in last week’s article, “no new idea ever starts out fully formed,” don’t expect a single brainstorming meeting to light the world on fire either. Brainstorming is one of several tools innovators can use to imagine new ideas – a.k.a. opportunities. These ideas will continue to move through the innovation process until they are either formed into solid product concepts or abandon for one reason or another. Brainstorming is simple a tool that helps the innovation team sculpt a grand product.

When using barnstorming for product ideation, it is best to start from a narrower frame and perspective – and build out from there. Use the “jobs-to-be-done” innovation method to frame brainstorming around specific jobs the team can explore and innovate around.

Instead of asking the group “what do you think a great product idea would be,” ask questions like these:

  1. What jobs are people trying to get done by hiring products?

  2. What are the ultimate outcomes they are trying to get done by doing these jobs?

  3. What are the ancillary and related  jobs they are trying to get done when executing a primary jobs?

  4. What circumstances and constraints to they face in executing their jobs?

  5. And from their perspective, how satisfied are they with the outcomes they are achieve in getting their jobs done?

Best solutions come from a deep understanding of what problems and constraints people have in achieving their desired outcomes – focus on understanding the problems and circumstance people have in executing jobs – and innovation will follow – I guarantee it!

Here’s to good brainstorming!


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