What did brainstorming ever do to receive such vitriol? Jonah Lehrer writes in the January 30 issue of The New Yorker:

Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. At such moments, brainstorming can seem like an ideal mental technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is one overwhelming problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

Susan Cain writes in a January 13 opinion piece for the New York Times titled “The Rise of the New Group Think”:

…brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. …But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases… People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.

And now Cliff Kuang raises concerns with brainstorming again in an article for Fast Company titled, The MP900427658 Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It? At least Kuang is asking how to make brainstorming more effective. Let’s brainstorm some possibilities (just kidding).

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “I believe the problem is in the implementation, not the method.” Indicting brainstorming is like saying that elearning is more effective than classroom-based learning. The truth is there is effective elearning and there is ineffective elearning. It all depends on the purpose, design, content, and delivery of the course.  

It’s the same with brainstorming. It all depends on the quality of design and facilitation. The critics are right; if all the facilitator does is allow participants to free associate for an hour and then go home, the process is “B.S.”. When that happens we can predict little creativity and little impact on planning.

However, when it is done well, when it is done in context and with preparation of participants, and when there is follow-up after the initial generation of ideas, then brainstorming can be very effective. A good facilitator:

  1. Is clear about the purpose and intended results of the exercise and discusses this with participants
  2. Prepares (even trains) participants for doing brainstorming (e.g., gives an example)
  3. Establishes norms for how participants are to behave in the session
  4. Leads the conversation in such a way that gets everyone involved, gets all of the ideas displayed in front of the group, and does not allow criticism until all ideas are listed
  5. Helps the group reach consensus on a subset of ideas on which to do further work
  6. Begins action planning to do the follow-up work
  7. Helps participants learn (and learn how to learn) from their involvement

There is an art and science to brainstorming. The facilitator must be able to follow the rules of brainstorming but also deviate from and expand on those rules depending on the situation.  

When done well, there are many uses of brainstorming. It could be used to evaluate a program, consider new strategies and methods, identify problems, create a vision for the future of an organization, or solve problems.  Often, brainstorming is used simply to warm up the group for a lengthy strategic-planning or prolbem-solving discussion. The technique creates an atmosphere of trust where everyone is heard and all ideas are respected. Now, what’s wrong with that?