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.

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About

I have been working in the world of technology for 25-odd years. I am an entrepreneur and consultant, focused on software solutions, social networking, and innovation processes. Currently, I am a Principal Consultant with T4G Limited, specializing in Portal Technologies (including SharePoint), software/systems development, service oriented architectures, and many other things which I will probably not remember until I need to use them. Prior to that, I was VP of Technology at Whitehill Technologies, Inc., where I spent almost 9 years helping to grow the company from a start-up to one of the most successful private software companies in Canada. Prior to that I worked on internet conferencing using early VoIP, and on large military communications projects. Before even that, I worked in satellite control, and remote sensing. Going way back to university, my focus was on theoretical physics and astrophysics. Currently my interests revolve around most aspects of software development, from technologies to management, and in the area of defining sustainable, repeatable processes for innovation within technology organizations. I also have a particular interest in Tablet PC technologies – I have been using one for several years, and I love it. On the personal side, I still have a strong interest in all aspects of science, especially physical sciences, as well as philosophy and comparative religion. In addition, I am into music, playing guitar (badly, I am sorry to say), and reading almost anything I can lay my hands on. I am also a member of the IEEE/IEEE Computer Society, and of the Association for Computing Machinery.

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5 comments on “Brainstorming is a bad idea? (again)
  1. […] these articles – I blogged about this in response to articles a couple of times (here  and here) and the issue is always the same. They refer to brainstorming as “throwing a bunch of people […]

  2. smartstorming says:

    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 http://www.SmartStorming.com or on our blog at http://www.blog.smartstorming.com.

    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: http://blog.smartstorming.com/2009/03/26/why-do-people-hate-brainstorm-sessions/

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

    Best,
    Keith Harmeyer
    keith@smartstorming.com

  3. Julia Styles says:

    Very well put, Fred.

  4. I agree. The key to an effective brainstorming group is a top-notch facilitator (just like the key to a top programming group is a great manager that provides resources, a vision, and the sense to get out of the way of the creative “engine”).

    Here’s an article about improving the traditional brainstorming process:

    http://manygoodideas.com/CreativeBusinessIdeas/brainstormingIntrospection.htm

  5. Patricia says:

    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!

    Patricia

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Please keep in mind that any opinions, points-of-view, comments, or other content which I post to this site are mine and mine alone. They in no way reflect the views of my employer, my country, my dog, my cat, or anyone else you can think of. To paraphrase Monty Python, "That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is, too."

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