Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

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Brainstorming! A great way to come up with lots of great ideas, right? WRONG! Turns out brainstorming — at least, the way most people do it — doesn't work. Here's why.

If you're a video person, I lay it all out in the video below. If reading is more your thing, skip the video and hop straight to the transcript below!

Hey there, Bill Stainton here with Turning Creativity into Money™, and today I want to talk about brainstorming. Specifically, why brainstorming doesn't work.

Now, you've probably heard that, but let me tell you why. And I know what you might be thinking, "Well Bill, you talk about innovation, creativity, you must be a big fan of brainstorming." I used to be, until I found out it really doesn't work. Why is that?

Well, let's imagine the typical brainstorming session, right? There you are with your team. And you're all sitting around, like, the big round table, okay? And the boss, the leader, says, "Okay, we need ideas, we need ideas about X," whatever X is. "We need ideas. Let's just brainstorm." Sounds good, right? Okay, and the boss says, "Okay just, come on, just throw...no bad ideas here, no judgment."

Sounds fantastic.

Here's the problem with that.

We do judge, it's built into us, and we notice the judgment of others. Maybe it's just a micro expression from the boss, maybe it's the entire team saying, Well, that's stupid!" And what does that do to the brainstorming session? It shuts it down.

Okay, let's take this example. The boss says, "Okay, I need ideas about X." Well, Pat, sitting two seats to your left, has an idea. And Pat says, Pat gives the idea, and you see a frown flicker across the boss's face. Now, you may have had an idea that was similar to Pat's. But you're not going to say it now, are you? Because the boss has already disapproved of Pat's...or if Pat gives, Pat gives the idea and everybody says, "Well, that's stupid, Pat!" Okay, it's breaking the rules, but it happens, right? So maybe Pat's idea wasn't great, but maybe your idea was. Maybe yours was just the little twist on Pat's idea that was going to change everything.

Maybe you had the million dollar idea.

But you're not going to say that idea now, because you don't want to be associated with what a loser Pat is, right? So you're not going to say anything, and so the group will never get to hear your idea, the group will never benefit by that idea.

Just the same way as the group never tends to hear from the introverts.

You ever notice how the quiet people never get heard? So it's always the loud people whose ideas are implemented? Doesn't mean they're the best, just means they are the loudest. So, in a brainstorming session it's easy for the, for the more introverted people to get even quieter because they feel a little intimidated by the loud people. So you never get to hear those ideas either.

So, one, either ideas get judged prematurely and therefore possible other ideas that are similar but better don't get heard, or you never hear the great ideas to begin with. So, brainstorming is is a flawed system.

What works better?

Here's what I found when I was working with my creative team, when i produced a comedy TV show and we needed to come up with ideas. I found this... the best ideas, especially if you're working with a creative, innovative team and you need those kind of creative, innovative ideas... the best ideas are generated individually.

Have your team members, give them 10 minutes, a half an hour, a day—whatever is appropriate. Say, "This is what we're looking for, come up with as many ideas as you can on your own, and then we'll bring them to the table."

So the best ideas tend to be generated individually, but then developed collectively. That's the key.

Generated individually, developed collectively.

The brainstorming table is a great place to develop ideas, not the best place to generate the ideas.

So when you're looking for ideas with your team, whether you're the leader or just a member of the team, the best way to do it is figure out, okay, what is the X, what is the thing that we need ideas about? And then everybody go off on their own, come up with as many ideas as you can, bring those to the table, and then start developing them. That's a brainstorming session I can get behind.

I'm Bill Stainton, I'll see you next time when I help you Turn Your Creativity into Money™.

About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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