Good old-fashioned 'Brainstorming' doesn't work. Well, not if you want great ideas. Read on and you'll find out why.

Your business has to grow. To do that it has to have creative ideas. After all, thinking like everyone else will see you move with everyone else. You need to have a way to constantly innovate.

We said 'Old-fashioned' for a reason. Brainstorms first appeared back in the 50's courtesy of Alex Osborn. The ad-man claimed brainstorming enhanced creative output by almost 50%. And we're still defaulting to that in various guises today. (Aka sprints).

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When you look at the purpose of a 'Brainstorm' it looks like a great idea.

  • Generate lots of ideas quickly
  • Highlight original thinking
  • Rapid refinement through collaboration
  • An open forum where there's no criticism

Being in a hot-house thinking session with your teammates will surely elevate everyone's game? And a little competition never did anyone any harm, right? Plus, because brainstorms aim to create a tsunami of ideas, you should hit on a humdinger of an idea sooner or later. What's not to like?

Evidence to the contrary

There have been over 60 years' of independent studies into the effectiveness of the brainstorm. Yet little evidence exists to prove this methodology leads to more, or better, ideas than people working independently. At OUTCREATE we think it could be having a harmful effect on creativity and key business decisions as a result.

There's a number of reasons for this contrary trend. The 800 teams used in the aforementioned study showed that people working on their own are more likely to have more ideas...and better one too.

And in big brainstorming groups, which require a lot of supervision, there was a large drop in performance. The drop was most obvious in sessions that were lead verbally, rather than having written inputs and outputs.

The most telling factor was how negativity creeps in and begins to affect a team when they hit an unproductive patch. There was a tendency to gave up.

Some reasons why Brainstorming doesn't work

We've all been in them and we've all felt it when things aren't working. Which, is pretty much every session in our experience (20 odd years in the Ad industry). Perhaps the following reasons help explain things:

  • No accountability: in a brainstorm, the team members can cruise a little because they think others 'will probably crack it...'. If this mindset dominates the group, the session will soon run aground.
  • Peer pressure: for some inexplicable reason, brainstorming in a group turns into Lord of the Flies. Participants become fixated on what their peers are thinking of them and their contribution (or lack of). This is a real problem for introverted staff who will always defer to the highest paid person's opinion. Participants either under-perform or over compensate in a bid to justify their attendance.
  • Dumbing down: another reason why brainstorming doesn't work is a that you'll often observe a conscious dumbing down from the more talented thinkers in a group. In an attempt to not dominate, they pull back and ultimately end up regressing to the base level of thinking.
  • Too many chefs: most brainstorms are linear and that means only one idea can be heard or highlighted at a time. The bigger the group, the fewer ideas individuals can put forward.
  • Democratic mediocrity: there's an unwritten rule in brainstorms that "There are no bad ideas...". Therefore people just blurt out whatever's in their head. Because no one in the room calls out bad ideas in the room, bad ideas will seep into your thinking, your brand and your business.

Brainstorming doesn't work. So why keep doing it?

Brainstorming is supposed to bring together a group of people with different skills and points of view to solve a problem. But here's the reality in most businesses - we assemble the people we have, or whomever is available (often with a bribe of a Pret sandwich platter) to make up numbers. Your dream brainstorm team is hardly ever available to be in one room for the time you need for a session to be successful. And now with lockdown, it makes it almost impossible.

Businesses keep doing it because it has always been done this way. It's all they know. And from a managerial perspective it feels good to see a team working together. Even if there's little evidence the team is achieving the what it has set out to do.

The creative alternatives

It wouldn't be right to just tell you that brainstorming doesn't work and leave it at that. If you've read this far, it probably means you know you need to change the way you have ideas in your business.

  • Rogue thinking: let your people think for themselves. Give them space and time to think the problem through individually. You will find that they think deeper, more focused and with more energy. Sharing an individual's ideas amongst a small team who work individually to build them up.
  • More haste: brainstorms should be a fast way of solving problems. But in reality you're failing quicker. So time is something that needs to be respected more. We're all too quick to run off and build or design a solution that we don't stop to ask...'Can it be better?' Give everyone time and the chance to really think things through and find ways to improve the ideas. Any creative worth their salt will tell you that the 'Over-night Test' is a real thing. Ideas that seemed great at when first often find themselves relegated to the recycling bin after a night's worth of percolation.
  • Do doodles: everyone writes in brainstorms. Ever noticed that? Yet, as a species, we react faster to images. So one trick to get people thinking differently when sharing ideas, is to do it only using doodles. Sketching the ideas can sometimes be the perfect way to demonstrate how an idea can start to live in the real world.

Causing a storm

So to summarise, brainstorming is may be one of the reasons your business feels like it's slowly sinking. Every mediocre idea implemented from a brainstorm, pokes another hole in your ship. If you are looking to have teams thinking on your brand or business problems, find a way to give individuals time and space to think more deeply. Structure your sessions around enhancing the ideas they bring into the sessions, rather than using valuable time to generate lots of low-level ideas and post-it collages.

And finally, we're in a pandemic and most reading this will be in lockdown. Running a brainstorm via Video Conference is a terrible thing to put your people through. If you care about your staff, and their welfare, find alternative ways to collaborate using boards like Miro.

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If you want to know more about OUTCREATE and are keen know how we can help your brand or organisation, please get in touch. hello@outcreate.io

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Rob Steeles is the Founder and Creative Director of OUTCREATE. He has over 20 years' experience as an award-winning creative and strategic thinker within some of the world's most creative agencies. He also hates old-fashioned brainstorms.