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If I Had A Hammer: Brainstorming Misunderstood

If I had a hammer I’d hammer in the morning I’d hammer in the evening All over this land…

Words and music by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger



Image of hammer on wooden table

Whenever I read an article or a book that explains how brainstorming “does not work” I cringe. These authors typically describe brainstorming as a forced and badly organized group activity for coming up with new ideas, before going on to explain why the process fails.


For example, in his book Imagine: how creativity works, Jonah Lehrer criticizes brainstorming as an “old-fashioned, inefficient approach”. He believes that brainstorming asks participants to refrain from criticism, which he describes as a vital part of a successful creative process, and therefore does not work. In her popular book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that cannot stop talking, Susan Cain, explains that she does not believe that brainstorming works for introverted thinkers. Other articles, such as the recent Harvard Business Review article,Why group brainstorming is a waste of time” (Chamorro-Premuzic) describes an unskilled way to use the tool and then suggests not to use it. This is like misusing a hammer to punch a hole in the wall and then justifying never using it again.


What I believe is that brainstorming is only one tool (among many others) in the Ideation Diverging phase of a creative process. So really, it is just a very small piece of the whole solving problem and innovating process.



Universal Steps of Creative Problem Solving


What is at the heart of all these discussions is how to optimize the creative process. The reason brainstorming is considered in the first place is that there is a challenge to solve and no obvious solution. The problem is that we are confusing a tool (brainstorming) with a purpose (solving problems creatively). Brainstorming is a tool that can be used in the context of solving a problem that requires new ideas or options, much like a hammer is a tool that can be used to hammer things when you build a house.


Ironically, Osborn, who is known as the father of brainstorming, did exactly that in the 50’s and 60’s when he looked at optimizing the whole creative process for his advertising agency. In Applied imagination, principles and procedures of creative problem-solving (1963) he recommended a full thinking process, but unfortunately history only remembers the tool and has forgotten the whole framework.


Let’s go back to our house building analogy for a moment. The creative framework is like building a house:

  • First, you have to think why you are building a house in the first place, what are the wants and needs of its future users, what are the constraints and requirements… which is equivalent to understanding the challenge at hand

  • Then plans must then be developed, followed by material selection, specs on everything, creating a budget and working with architects, contractors, designers, etc. which is the corollary to developing ideas and options, then selecting the most appropriate for the challenge

  • Finally, the house must be built, possibly with a small mock-up first during the development and implementation phase.

Those who have built a house know that there is a lot of back and forth within each phase, looking at many options and making multiple decisions. The iterative nature of the process is called the dynamic balance (see diagram below) and in our house building example would include:

  • Generating options, which is called Divergence in the world of innovative thinking (for example: who are all the architects we should consider? How might we design the bathrooms? What materials and appliances should we consider that will give the kitchen a contemporary look? …)

  • Selecting options, which is called Convergence, where we need to make all the decisions (let’s decide on an architect, select a style, size, material …) based on criteria we have defined upfront (such as price, durability, look, convenience, feasibility…)

The Dynamic Balance: An Universal Principle of Successful Creativity

The Dynamic Balance: An Universal Principle of Successful Creativity

In that context, Brainstorming is only a tool to help solve the problem, like a hammer is one tool to help build a new house.


While it is only a tool, I do believe Brainstorming is still a relevant tool when used appropriately by a trained expert who knows when and how best use it.


Here is my six-point rebuttal in support of brainstorming:


1. Osborn never said that group think was better than individual thinking.


In Applied Imagination, Osborn wrote, “solo thinking (is) still essential” (Osborn p. 139) and “collaboration serves as a supplement” (p.139 and 141) and recommends alternating team work with individual work. Osborn uses the word “incubation” to describe this critical time of alone thinking, which “enhances the working of association” (Osborn p.174). He even has an entire chapter dedicated to this, which he called “periods of incubation invite illumination”, describing the critical role of the unconscious mind in the creative process. In his book Imagine, Leher is actually saying the same thing 60 years later, but without crediting or properly attributing the source. And there are many ways to adapt brainstorming to include individual time, asynchronous work and opportunities for introverts to participate.


2. Brainstorming is only one diverging tool among hundreds.


Diverging tools, such as brainstorming, are used to identify options for problem statements, insights, ideas or next steps. Osborn acknowledged that people frequently misunderstand brainstorming and “regarded group brainstorming as a complete problem-solving process” (Osborn, 1963, p.152). No reputable moderator will have a stand-alone “brainstorming session” but rather use the brainstorming tools among others for helping identify problems, generate options and ideas or identify actions and next steps. Even a session focused only on ideation will include a set of tools and not brainstorming exclusively (for example Brainwriting, SCAMPER, Analogy…). If you are interested in tools, you could check books like Creativity unbound or 101 Design Methods.


3. Brainstorming is only successful if one follows the divergent guidelines.


Often the word brainstorming is used to describe an unguided discussion about new ideas. For instance, people would said “we brainstorm during our weekly meeting about finding new ideas for …”. The meeting would possibly last less than an hour, with a few ideas being shared and possibly shut down immediately with comments such as being “unrealistic”, “too costly” or “we tried it before” and “it would never work”. Another common scenario would be to have a group generate several ideas, vote and select the most popular (often with defining clear criteria), leaving the team feeling unsatisfied and frustrated because new and different ideas never got a chance to emerged or be considered.

To make brainstorming or any other diverging tools successful, there are critical guidelines to follow. The first four come directly from the work of Osborn and the last one from the design world:

  1. Defer judgment

  2. Strive for quantity

  3. Seek wild and unusual ideas

  4. Build on other ideas

  5. Be visual

Unless you make these guidelines explicit to the group and follow them, your will be using the brainstorming tool inappropriately which will only reinforce the belief that brainstorming does not work.


4. The outcome of a brainstorming cannot be evaluated by itself, but only as part of the Dynamic Balance process, alternating divergence and convergence.


When I do a training I jokingly remind the team that if they only remember the principle of the Dynamic Balance, the alternating of diverging (generating a lot of options) and converging (sifting through and selecting options) it will make a huge difference in how they run their meetings and how successful they will be at identifying to new ideas with successful outcomes. Often brainstorming is criticized because it does not garner expected results. The reason is often that a group participates in a diverging exercise, using a brainstorming tool and then is left with hundreds of options that they do not know how to sort. That is when the converging phase and specific converging tools become critical. The converging phase of the creative process is actually much more challenging and lengthy. In my experience, it should take approximately twice as long as the diverging phase to be successful. Yet usually it has very little, if any, time allotted for it.

In my practice, once my clients understand this dynamic balance and begin to use it regularly, the creative process becomes much more productive. Converging can be difficult because decisions need to be made, distinctions between novelty and feasibility must be assessed, cost and risks need to be balanced, the tension between “applied” and “imagination” – words purposely selected by Osborn 50+ years ago – resolved.


5. While attention is primarily focused on group thinking and diverging, group discussion are often critical to converging.


While all eyes are on brainstorming, very little exists in articles, books or literature about the other critical piece of success of the creative process, the convergence. When it is time for decisions, unless you organization has a pure top-down approach, teamwork becomes critical to make the decisions that the team members will feel confident implementing. Given the complexity of most business problems and decisions, different skills, knowledge and styles are required to make critical decisions. Converging is the time for discussion and debate. Lehrer is correct in highlighting the importance of the role of debate and criticism, citing examples at Pixar and Apple. But comparing this activity to brainstorming is missing the point — that both need to co-exist to achieve the optimum creative outcome.

Converging also has some critical ground rules, which make all the difference between constructive discussion and ineffective conflict when it comes time for decision making.

  1. Be affirmative. Consider positives first, rather than going directly to the negative

  2. Be deliberate. Give all options a fair chance

  3. Check your objectives. Often we get side tracked and forget our initial purpose. It is important to evaluate against that purpose, and better still if you have set up criteria for success upfront

  4. Improve ideas. Be aware that new options or combinations may emerge from the converging discussion

  5. Consider novelty. Innovative ideas tends to get killed too early and it is critical to affirm the value of novelty and give novelty a chance to flourish

6. Post-its® notes are a great way to allow for introvert and extrovert thinking


Coming back to the premise of Susan’s Cain book about giving introverted thinkers a chance, the invention of Post-it notes, as well as some of the new visual technologies, has allowed for a greater combination of individual and “group think”. Using Post-it® notes or individual computers (with shared outcome on an electronic whiteboard in a virtual session), allows each participant to write their own ideas or options before or during a creative sessions prior to sharing them, which can provide an opportunity for individual thinking as well as group expression. When converging, the use of Post-it notes or appropriate software allows for silent clustering that can give introverts a chance to think for themselves. A good facilitator will ensure a mix of these two ways of thinking, to allow for individual preferences (introverts versus extroverts) and optimum outcomes.

So when you are confronted with your next challenge, please consider the following questions first:

  • What is the real challenge?

  • How can I develop and identify multiple ideas to solve my challenge?

  • What solutions can I develop from my ideas, and how can I best select a few to prototype?

Then decide which tools you may use to answer these questions and be sure that brainstorming, if selected, is used as one of the tool and not the whole process.

And finally next time you hear criticism of brainstorming, remember that brainstorming is one small piece in a complex puzzle. It would be shortsighted to embrace only one piece and not see the whole picture. Don’t think that just because you’re holding a hammer, everything should be a nail.

Sources:

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), p. 84-92. Downloadable at http://www.ideo.com/news/design-thinking1/ Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers. Isaksen, S.G. & Treffinger, D.J. (1985). Creative problem solving; the basic course. Buffalo, NY: Bearly Limited. Kumar, V. (2013). 101 design methods. A structured approach for Driving Innovation in your organization

Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine. How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Markman, A. (2017) Your team is brainstorming all wrong, Harvard Business Review (May 19, 2017) Downloadable at https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong

Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied imagination. Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving (3rd revised edition). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Chamoro-Pemuzic, T. (2015) Why group brainstorming is a waste of Time. Harvard Business Review March 2015. Downloadable at https://hbr.org/2015/03/why-group-brainstorming-is-a-waste-of-time

Puccio, G.J., Murdock, M.C., & Mance M. (2007). Creative leadership. Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. Vehar, J.R., Miller, B.M., & Firestien, R.L.(2001). Creativity Unbound: An Introduction to Creative Problem Solving (3rd edition). Williamsville, NY: Innovation Resources, Inc.



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