Why Brainstorming Sucks (And How to Fix It)

Last Updated Apr 15, 2011 4:51 PM EDT


The typical business brainstorming session consists of a bunch of people thrown together in a room and exhorted to "Think outside the box!" and "Rule nothing out!" Why this remains standard procedure is a mystery, since few brainstorming exercises of this sort yield much of value, and the problems with the conventional approach are well known.

If you want to do brainstorming right, discard the widely believed myths and go with the proven approaches. For instance:

Myth: The more ideas, the better. A superior approach is to think: "The more better ideas, the better." When brainstorming is too open to any and all ideas, and every idea is at least initially treated as equal, too many proposals are completely useless because they lie outside the organization's capabilities or limits. McKinsey & Co. describes a process called "brainsteering" in which some pre-set parameters -- ideas have to cost less than $5,000, say, or generate quick payback -- help idea-generators come up with feasible proposals, rather than concepts that are so far outside the box that they're useless.

Myth: A group of people working together can come up with better ideas than one person. Numerous studies support the opposite contention. A 2010 article in The Journal of Creative Behavior reports a typical finding: "Groups of individuals generating ideas in isolation (nominal groups) generated more ideas and more original ideas and were more likely to select original ideas during the group decision phase than interactive group brainstormers." One way to do nominal group brainstorming is to have participants come up with ideas on their own before the group session. Alternately, give each person in the session a piece of paper on which to write down ideas, without input from others, before subjecting them to discussion.

Myth: The best ideas naturally float to the top when discussion and evaluation is open, free-ranging, and unrestricted. Wide-open brainstorming sessions have many problems, beginning with the fact that talkative, dominating people tend to drown out quieter ones, whether or not the wallflowers' ideas are better. Get around this with round-robin brainstorming. This approach poses a question to the group, after which each member has a chance to bring up his or her suggestions without comment or interruption from the others. A scribe is assigned to write down each person's thoughts. Only after everyone has been heard from is the floor thrown open to talk generally about each idea.

In some respects, a business is like a machine that takes ideas dumped into the top and turns them into money that comes out the bottom. To the extent that's valid, how well your business does is a function of how good your ideas are. Discarding myths about brainstorming and doing this venerable creative process right will go far to improve the raw material you're using to create profit.

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications long enough to lay somewhat legitimate claim to being The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Reckless Dream Photography, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.