Brainstorming is a Waste of Time

Posted by Kristin Arnold on February 13, 2012

Psychologist Adrian Furham, Phd, was quoted in the February Issue of the Oprah magazine, “The evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups….If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

So is brainstorming a waste of time?

Yes…and no.

Here’s the “yes” part of the answer: I think businesspeople misuse brainstorming.  Developed in the 1950s by advertising executive as a way to leverage the creativity of his advertising team, brainstorming is used to incite energy and a TON of ideas.  It’s an absolute free flow of information where all ideas are voiced, and the evaluation of those ideas is done later. It’s about quantity, not quality.

Okay, so let’s be real, here.  When was the last time you went to a “real” brainstorming session?  Probably few and far between.  What typically happens one of three things:

1) We are really “listing” things that we know in the finite universe vs. leveraging any sort of creativity.  For example, you “list” the 31 flavors to Baskin-Robbins; yet you “brainstorm” potential new Ben & Jerry flavors.  There is no real creativity in creating a list.  So stop calling it a brainstorming session.

2)  We “brainstorm” and evaluate at the same time.  This gets really frustrating for everyone at the table….and you’ll hear such clues as “we’re just brainstorming here, right?” or “I’m just talking off the top of my head” because you know that in another minute or so, someone will tell you that your baby is ugly and you move on to the next idea.

3)  The brainstorming meeting was called at the last minute and you sat there like a deer in the headlights expected to come up with something brilliant – or you neglected to give the topic any thought before you got there.

And here is where I agree with Dr. Furham.  Prior to any brainstorming session, each person should tap into their own wisdom about the topic and come prepared to offer ideas and suggestions. Yes, creativity occurs on an individual level and then can be enhanced, sharpened and explored more at the team level.

The key to successful brainstorming is to get all the ideas out on the table.  The ones you bring with you and the ones you create as a result of the team dynamic – the energy in the room.  Then step back.  Does something jump out at you?  Is there a theme? Is there a combination of ideas?  Here’s the messy part – the evaluation of the ideas where some ideas are left behind.  Each person must be willing to let go of the individual contribution (the baby!) and see the team’s bigger objective.

It is the evaluation of these ideas where teams get stuck.  True brainstorming can be seen as “inefficient” as it takes a bit more time, can bruise egos (my baby!), or even worse, the team can settle into groupthink.

Here’s the “no” part of the answer: Done correctly, brainstorming can tap into the creativity of the group, provide an even better result that everyone on the team is committed to implement.  That’s why it is helpful to have a skilled meeting facilitator to guide the group through this potentially messy process of generating ideas so the team can make a decision to take action.  And isn’t that really what it is all about?  Making a group decision that everyone can support and implement?

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