Brainstorming is a bad idea? (again)

It is amazing how a single post by the right person can stir up so much commentary. The latest I have read is One head is better than two or more. As Patricia pointed out in a comment to my previous post on this, The Medici Effect author also goes on to say:

“So, should we all stop brainstorming? I don’t think so. Done right, brainstorming is a highly effective way to actively generate intersectional ideas.”

Brainstorming, like any other human-centric activity, needs a process. Throwing a bunch of people into a room and saying “create brilliant ideas” is not an effective process. To me, this is analagous to putting a bunch of programmers in a room with no process and saying “create a wonderful product” (though admittedly, I have seen a fair number of companies try to do software development this way!). Similarly, badly run, pointless meetings with no clear purpose, and no process, do indeed make us collectively dumber.

Anyone who has ever been on an over-acheiving team (work, sports, or otherwise) knows from experience that the right team, working together with an effective process, can achieve things that none of the individuals could come close to working seperately.

Undertaking any group activity, whether brainstorming, software development, or running a business with no process or a bad process will indeed frequently lead to the result that working alone is more productive and more satisfying than working in a group. Does that mean you stop the activity? No, it means you fix the process.

5 Replies to “Brainstorming is a bad idea? (again)”

  1. Fred, I happened to see your post. At the risk of a bit of self-promotion, my partner and I have spent years developing a comprehensive process to address each of the fundamental weaknesses of brainstorming. Read about it at or on our blog at

    The point about poor facilitation is absolutely true. In our research, we’ve found that less than 10% of people leading brainstorms — even in creative service businesses — have had any form of training in group ideation or group dynamics.

    One of the key misconceptions is that brainstorming, because it is “creative” in nature, needs to be loose and unstructured. Nothing could be further from the case. See my blog post today on this subject:

    I hope to read and exchange more on this topic. It’s obviously an important one to many of us.

    Keith Harmeyer


  2. Fred, I think the reason this struck a nerve is that so many people have been stuck in unproductive, frustrating brainstorming sessions where the process didn’t work. Let me share a converse example, though.

    My sister worked at a (nameless, famous) smoothie company. A marketing executive went off by himself – the “one head” example – and dreamed up a brilliant promotion. Seriously, no fooling, it was a great idea. He had his marketing group print up collateral, signs, ads, etc. and then announced the promotion to the company. Guess what?

    The cash regsiters were not set up to implement this wonderful promotion — in the stores, where it actually matters.

    The upshot? This guy invited store managers to brainstorm a work-around!



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