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14 Sep 2015

The Myth of Brainstorming

The Myth of Brainstorming

The Myth of Brainstorming (is it just a bunch of BS?)

By Heather Berndt, MarCom Visual Communications Chair

On a recent episode of On Being with Krista Tippett I heard something surprising about the brain. According to neuropsychologist Rex Jung, when it comes to creativity, brainstorming is one of the worst things we can do to generate ideas. I also learned there is plenty of research going back to the 1950s that supports his statement. Say what? As a graphic designer who has sat through many a mastermind session, hearing that a time-honored corporate tradition lacked merit was cause for further exploration.

Below (through a very unscientific process of internet surfing), is a brief overview of what I found:

Thou Shalt Not Criticize (or should you?)

Touted as the #1 rule of brainstorming, the theory here is that because the imagination is considered shy and fragile, a non-threatening environment is necessary for it to safely express. While this is somewhat accurate (many creatives I know are quite sensitive), the deeper truth is that a certain amount of debate and dissent is actually a good thing for stimulating creative thought. Healthy criticism not only proves others are listening and involved with the process; it also challenges the weakness and/or strength of an idea.

Every Idea is a Good Idea (are you sure about that?)

The unofficial #2 rule of brainstorming, this is based on the reasoning that quantity, not quality, is the key to uncovering a big idea. However, since free association is bound by language, and language is full of clichés, when quantity is the goal, results tend to be superficial and lacking in originality. In fact, studies shows that the quality of an idea increases dramatically when it is first conceived by an individual in temporary isolation followed by further development leveraging the group mind.

Group Dynamics (yes, they are a bid deal!)

A well-known barrier to brainstorming is the extrovert phenomenon, where the more verbal and confident performers step forward to fill the room with words, while the introverted thinkers step aside to ponder and listen. Unfortunately, this natural tendency of personality types places social conformity first and imagination second, creating an imbalance of participation that decreases the likelihood of all ideas being presented.

Other more subtle challenges include the power of politics (if the boss likes an idea people are afraid to disagree) and the other superpower, laziness (we all know people who are happy to let others carry the load).

The other side of the story (of course there is one.)

Despite the evidence otherwise, there is still plenty of anecdotal support for the value of brainstorming. And a broad body of research on teams and organizations suggests that when sessions are managed right and skillfully linked to other work practices, they can promote remarkable innovation.

Sounds like that last part might make for another good blog post or MarCom breakfast topic! What works best for you and your organization? MarCom would love to hear.