Does Brainstorming Really Work?

Everyone talks about “brainstorming,” and for most of us, it’s a normal part of the creative process.  But for years, I’ve had my suspicions about brainstorming because honestly, it rarely works for me.  Keep in mind that I’m a writer, so sitting in an empty room with nothing but my laptop is pretty close to heaven.  But at the same time, I love being around people – especially when it comes to making projects happen.  But in the cold, hard light of day – when it comes to generating ideas, I get a lot more done by myself than with a team.  This short video captures why.  Take a look and then tell me about your creative approach, and whether brainstorming is the big deal it’s supposed to be:

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  1. Great article Phil. As someone who leads brainstorming sessions on the daily, one nugget of info I can pass on is to make sure attendees have the opportunity to come prepared to contribute ideas. Don’t wait until everyone is in the room to share the creative it at least an hour before the meeting.This helps folks think ideas through, and is especially helpful for those that might have trouble speaking off the cuff in large groups. A little bit of preparation can go a long way.

  2. My experience is that after a 90 minutes brainstorming session very little gets put into practice. Unless someone is taking copious notes and the creative director implements the relevant suggestions, everybody leaves feeling good but nothing actually changes.

  3. Who knew? All this time I’ve been engaging in Debate & Dissent while throwing cold water on the flames of creativity.

    The best collaborative/creative times I have experienced have been when I have a handful of folks smarter than me in my weakest areas–plenty of criticism (we’ll call it ‘debate’) to go around there. The best ideas come when the best minds are engaged.

    The “there are no dumb ideas” philosophy is sometimes code for “there are unqualified people around the table.”

      1. Found this interesting: My 16 year old and 20 year old read your post, I described the video content, and before I could add my opinion, they both said, “Ya, brainstorming doesn’t work. Too many dumb ideas.” Fascinating! Not sure if I should be proud or worried . . .

  4. I am not too sure about this. Honestly. I like the brainstorming process IF it is then whittled down with criticism as a vital part of that process. All ideas are not good ideas, but feeding off others can get the creative juices going. Just my .02 worth.

    1. Agreed. Even horrible ideas, or knee-jerk stupid ideas thrown out to be funny can trigger really incredible ideas that can work.

      One thing that seems to work well for me, is at the end, assign the task to a specific and wise person to finish boiling down the session into all the working parts, and letting them fine-tune it with a bit more input from team members.

      All of this can result in great results.

  5. What if we were to first have the “criticism free” brainstorming session, perhaps on Monday. Meet again two days later and let the criticism fly. Good teams will usually let the ideas discussed roll around in their minds between meetings. At the second meeting, let the criticism fly after there is a review of previous meeting. Sure, it takes more time, but the quality of ideas and solutions are much better.

  6. Great Question Phil – I think brainstorming is extrememly valuable. But I agree with some of the thoughts here – there is a recipe. it is important to gather a specific group of people together FOR the brainstorming session. A few experienced, savvy grey hairs and a few energetic and optimistic young adults…that’s when the magic happens in a brainstorming session! 😉

  7. I’ve found it valuable at times when I don’t have expertise in a specific area. However, i do pretty well most of the time researching on the Internet to spark my imagination. Overall, I think brainstorming is valuable sometimes and a waste of time others. I mean, if it’s just going to stall a process or lead to arguments with folks who have no expertise…

  8. The biggest ways to make sure brainstorming has no value are to make it an all day session, invite more than five people, criticize nothing, and put Phil Cooke in the middle of it. Trust me folks, he will shoot himself before the first bowl of M&Ms is empty.

  9. It’s a great thought provoking discussion. To have a productive “brainstorming” session, there needs to be a strategic plan, though that may sound contrary to the concept of brainstorming. There should be some form of plan to the brainstorming session; someone in charge; and some kind of goal, not to hinder the freedom but to keep the focus. On the flip side, a “brainstorming” session with no format but just throwing everything on the table can lead to a lot of tangents, wasted time and no results. I’ve been in both types and my preference is the one with a plan. And, I agree with your point, that some of my best brainstorming ideas come when I am alone and without the distractions of others’ voices.

    1. SO true Bobbye. Too many people think “brainstorming” is just getting people in a room and eating doughnuts, and somehow a brilliant idea will emerge.

  10. I agree with many of the other comments–preparation can go a long way, along with the right mix of people. I think the most important thing is to know the *purpose* of the brainstorming session in the first place.

    Sometimes it’s to create amazing new ideas, other times it’s just for others to feel part of the process (so they’re less likely to shoot down new ideas later)

    Keeping it to just a few hours is key to avoid people poking out their own eyes with pencils. (And Mary you’re absolutely right about Phil ;))

  11. I agree with the video…I have been at many meetings where we settle for the lowest common denominator ‘idea’…one that is usually insipid or cliche. What I have studied instead is the process of ‘innovation’. In many cases, innovation doesn’t occur as the result of an intentional decision to innovate. It happens as a flash of inspiration, as the mind finds a solution to the problem in a context different from the problem. You might have a problem designing traffic signals and suddenly have a ‘eureka’ moment while watching kids ordering Popsicles from the ice cream man. This is how most of my solutions happen. Brainstorm meetings usually just result in some complex doodles.

  12. I think it depends on the people in the group. We’re a pretty creative bunch but most of our original ideas verge on the insane. We find that in the safety of a well-established group, we can bounce the crazy stuff off others and between us come up with a really strong concept. I think it depends entirely on the group and how ‘safe’ everyone feels. I know that I can say, ‘I’ve had this mad idea….’ And from there, we tone it down to something which really has worth.

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