On the pointlessness of Brainstorming (and on the value of its alternatives)

Let’s try to clarify things a bit: Brainstorming doesn’t work. Proof is in a paper called Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups.

Despite the fact that Brainstorming produces less ideas and worse ones than other techniques, it’s still is on the top of the preferred tools of any company whenever they try to… well, honestly do anything!

So, in this article, I’ll show you exactly what is wrong with that approach and what to do instead.

If you’re like me, you’ve had brainstorming sessions to come up with new product ideas, to decide on the location for your new year’s party, to work on a complete new strategy.

You did it by the book: one moderator and regulated discussion. And by the book I did it too!

The result? A complete disaster. Boredom, bad ideas thrown in, no motivation to actually say or do anything. People with an agenda (unconsciously maybe) yelling out stuff only they cared about.

So what happened after is exactly what we expected was going to happen. NOTHING.

Nominal Group Technique

So, in this sense a brainstorming session is a very useful exercise in terms of entertainment and of studying social interactions and nature.

But, if you want to actually use it and get what you want out of it in the end (results, ideas, strategies), is as useful as sitting down on your own and writing down a list.

Oh, no sorry, I was wrong.

Brainstorming is actually LESS USEFUL than thinking on your own! (Don’t trust me on this, trust them).

Now, let’s go through why brainstorming doesn’t work and later on I’ll show you what else you could do instead.

Brainstorming kills Creativity!

How does creativity work?

I like (ironically) how creativity is looked down upon in “traditional” business environments. As if you could come up with ideas without being creative…

Then again, I’ve seen that that’s exactly what is expected of you…

A small step back: teams brainstorm to have ideas, ideas are based on creativity, what is creativity based on?

Creativity in business

Creativity, without going too much in detail, is the result of your brain thinking freely, without censorship and filter of any kind. This mean, in practical terms, being able to dig as deep as you can in your emotions and instincts and voice out everything you need.

Usually, the deeper you go, the better: you voice out all the “easy” ideas first and then you start getting your creative juices flowing – and THEN is when the good stuff comes on.

Brainstorming and creativity

On paper, brainstorming works… in reality though, things go differently.

My point is simple: in a professional, constrained environment, are you able to comfortably and fully let go of any filter to your instincts, impulses and ideas?

I’m not trying to be crass here – I’m trying to make a real-life example.

Many people, including myself, are not able to let go completely. Some are unable to do it when they are alone, imagine in a social situation!

In a brainstorming session you have any kind of social pressure jumping right at you: office competition, love or hate relationship with a colleague, hierarchy…

Regardless of what specifically plays in your environment, the net effect is the same: censorship.

And once you’ve got that, you’re done: Brainstorming creates social pressures, social pressures create censorship, censorship kills creativity: brainstorming kills creativity.

And in a second, I’ll show you what you should do instead.

Brainstorming alternative: the NGT

So far we’ve got this: social pressures and petty human interaction blocks breed censorship and kill creativity, and brainstorming has all the blocks to do just that.

So, what do you do?

Group Decision Making-1

You go around the blocks with something called the Nominal Group Technique.

Now, in my book I give a lot more detail about this and other techniques, but for a quick-and-dirty pro-con comparison have a look at this:

brainstorming

nominal group technique

Just by comparing these two summaries you have that the NGT removes personal judgment and shyness, which is exactly the flaw that Brainstorming is based on (thinking that noone will be shy or that everyone is ok when feeling judged).

So, how does the NGT work?

Similarly to Brainstorming, you have a team, a room, a moderator and a problem that you’ll state at the beginning.

The main difference with brainstorming, though, is this: you want to get rid of any social pressure, so you ask everyone to think about ideas and suggestions alone, in silence, with pen and paper.

You decide how long that will take – I would personally go up to 2 hours, but 30 minutes will do if you’re in a rush.

After that, you ask everyone to share their ideas, in turn and one idea at the time, while you record everything on the board (no questions or comments now). Once you’re done you can start a discussion.

Idea

It’s a simple twist on brainstorming, but with tremendous effects. If you want to take it a notch up, ask your team to do all the thinking separately in their own offices. In other words remove anything that would create a block in your team’s creativity, make them feel safe and give them a safe environment – you will be rewarded.

 

Now I want to turn it over to you.

Tell me, right now, what use you’re going to make of this. Just leave a comment on the page and let me know, I’d be curious to see what your take is on this!

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