Imagine that you’ve been invited to a brainstorming session at work next week. Maybe your colleagues are trying to come up with a creative idea for a new client campaign, or your boss is trying to solve an internal corporate problem. What comes to mind?
Many of us will think of a bunch of people gathering around a conference room table and letting their ideas fly. Someone, perhaps the facilitator or group leader, is frantically scribbling all of the ideas down on a whiteboard. You may be sitting there feeling tempted to evaluate each idea as it’s proposed, but you’ve been told to suspend judgment for the duration of the idea-generating session. Depending on your personality and experience, maybe you feel comfortable sharing your ideas; maybe you don’t.
What is brainstorming?
The scenario above describes brainstorming, which BusinessDictionary.com defines as a process for generating creative ideas and solutions through intensive and freewheeling group discussion. Every participant is encouraged to think aloud and suggest as many ideas as possible, no matter seemingly how outlandish or bizarre. Analysis, discussion, or criticism of the aired ideas is allowed only when the brainstorming session is over and the evaluation session begins.
This is what I consider to be traditional brainstorming. I’ve been working at creative agencies for more than two decades, and I’ve found such brainstorming to be the bread and butter of such agencies. Designers, marketers and writers are asked, every day, to generate great ideas for an ad, a TV spot, trade show, conference theme, new product feature or an integrated marketing campaign.
Some problems with traditional brainstorming
I was always told that it was better to brainstorm with more people in the room because the team would have more creative energy and come up with more and better ideas, but I’ve often wondered if that’s true.
First there’s the issue of introversion. For example, it’s occurred to me that my own introverted tendencies may negatively affect my ability to participate in a group brainstorm. Personally, I’ve often felt like I’ve done better brainstorming when I took time to think by myself before coming to a group brainstorm. Spontaneously sharing ideas in front of others can be intimidating for anyone, but especially for us introverts.
Then there’s the issue of seniority. Junior members of a team might not feel comfortable speaking out and sharing their ideas in front of more senior team members. The fear that we might not appear smart enough in front of our colleagues and bosses causes a social anxiety that may motivate some of us to keep quiet instead of speaking about our ideas.
So, are there better ways to encourage more and better ideation?
Two approaches to brainstorming
In our research, we’ve discovered not just one, but two common approaches to brainstorming:
- Generating answers
- Generating questions
Generating answers is the more traditional type of brainstorming that we’ve been discussing so far. You start with a short, simple, open-ended question with the goal of resolving a well-defined problem.
It’s common in creative agencies where everyone is working from an approved creative brief, a document that describes the client’s problem and the unique selling proposition (USP) of the product or service being marketed. Think here of features and benefits relative to the competition.
You carry that brief into the brainstorm and, together, try to come up with a clever headline, visual or other messaging framework that addresses the client’s problem and expresses the USP creatively. For example, a brief for a brand-new vacuum cleaner might include this question: how do I get people to buy the Cyclone 600 with the ultra-clean HEPA filtration?
Generating questions is a less common approach to brainstorming, but it’s extremely effective for situations in which a large organizational problem has been identified. You might know something is wrong, but you don’t totally understand the nature of the problem.
In this case, you’ll often present the problem as a short, simple declarative statement. For example, “Our recruitment process is not finding ideal candidates.” Solving this kind of problem requires questions, not answers.
A Harvard Business Review article called “Better Brainstorming” by Hal Gregersen thoroughly describes the approach to brainstorming questions. Gregersen explains how the process of asking “fresh questions can help us beget novel — even transformative — insights.” These three steps concisely summarize his approach:
- Set the stage. Pick your problem, invite your people and take two minutes to outline your problem to them.
- Brainstorm the questions. Take four minutes to collectively generate as many questions as possible. Resist the temptation to offer answers in response to any of them.
- Review the questions and pick at least one that helps you to reframe your initial problem and pick a new angle for solving it.
In asking questions, you often uncover things that you didn’t know before. Considering our recruitment process example, you might discover that it’s not your human resources system that’s wrong, but maybe there’s a problem with your website or your recruitment advertising. Asking questions helps you stimulate the creative process and uncover more fruitful areas to explore. You can then repeat this process with a new and different question as you continue to refine the problem.
Group vs. solo brainstorming
In the generating-questions approach to brainstorming, groups of people are quite helpful, even essential. It would be difficult to do this kind of brainstorming individually.
In the traditional approach of generating answers, brainstorming with groups of people has typically been considered the best practice, but that’s not always the case. Several articles* explain the problems with group brainstorms and why individuals can sometimes generate more ideas than groups.
One issue has to do with powerful social dynamics that arise in group brainstorming. We already mentioned social anxiety and introversion as factors that can hold people back in group brainstorming, but there is another behavior that arises: social loafing. That’s when one or more members of the group become lazy, letting other people in the group do the heavy lifting. Such behavior is more likely to happen when group members are not feeling energized by the exercise of brainstorming, and they’re just going along with it.
In a group setting, there can also be a related tendency toward cognitive fixation or simply affirming the ideas of others rather than putting your own out there. Though often not a conscious behavior, it’s just easier to go along with someone else and expand on their idea rather than coming up with and disclosing your own (perhaps even contradictory) idea.
Address the real problem
What is important in any group brainstorming effort is to make sure you’re collectively solving the real problem or that you’re addressing the real discomfort. You know something’s not working, but what is the real issue?
Be wary of just jumping into traditional brainstorming because you may end up spending a lot of time, money and energy solving something that’s not really the problem.
Brainstorming in the business world is a lot like what should happen in medicine when troubleshooting a patient’s problem. Consider this example: When you walk into a doctor’s office complaining of knee pain, if the doctor jumps straight to “fixing” your knee by prescribing medication, icing, rest and/or specific knee exercises, is he or she really understanding and addressing the problem? Perhaps you actually have a foot issue, and you’re walking funny to compensate for it, thus putting stress on and creating pain in your knee? Or maybe you’ve got a hip issue or a muscle imbalance that’s causing your knee to track funny and hurt. By first asking more questions, your doctor can properly understand and diagnose the problem. Only then does he or she brainstorm possible solutions to the real problem and prescribe from among them the most appropriate treatments.
Digging into the hybrid approach
So sometimes in the business world it is best to use not one, but both methods of brainstorming. First, use the generating-questions brainstorm to better understand the real issue, then witch to a generating-answers brainstorm to solve the better defined and more specific problem.
Furthermore, the thoughtful application of both solo and group brainstorming can help you more effectively understand and solve your problems.
Next time you think you have a problem to solve, you could start with the group question brainstorming as explained in the Harvard Business Review. Then pick a few key questions and follow up on them. You might try multiple sessions to fully refine and understand the problem.
Once you really know what the problem is, then switch to a traditional brainstorming-answers approach. Maybe you give each group member some time to reflect in advance of an organized group brainstorm session so that everyone comes together prepared and energized to solve the problem together.
Research by Runa Korde and Paul Paulus substantiates this hybrid approach. In their 2017 study, they found that alternating individual and group ideation was better than group ideation or solitary ideation.
As with most things, no one method is best. We suggest you consider all the approaches we’ve mentioned and check out our list below for some tips ahead of your next brainstorming session.
How To Brainstorm Effectively
- Invite a diverse group of participants. That means including people with different talents, with different roles in your organization and with different levels of experience. Everyone brings a unique perspective and personality.
- Select the right group size. Don’t make your group too small, or you risk not generating many ideas. At the same time, don’t make your group too big so that everyone feels safe in speaking out and sharing their ideas. In surveying the advice of various experts, optimal group size seems to range between two and 10.
- Consider multiple rounds of brainstorming instead of just one session and give participants time in between to reflect.
- Pick the best approach for each session: Are you going to brainstorm for answers or questions?
- Create an environment that is positive. People are more creative when they’re in a positive emotional state because they can better experience empathy for others. Encourage people to act in a way that lets them start the session feeling positive; that might mean they go for a run or have a cup of coffee beforehand.
- Remind everyone present to suspend judgement of any questions or answers generated during the brainstorm. You will evaluate your collective results together or separately afterward.
- Don’t limit yourself to words. Yes, you can brainstorm with words, but you can also brainstorm by drawing or even acting out your ideas.
- Build on the ideas of others. It can be helpful to use words like “and” and not “but” when leveraging one idea to come up with another.
- Set a time limit and stick to it, whether you are generating questions or answers. Different experts advocate for anywhere from three to four minutes to one to three hours. Make your session too short, and you won’t have enough time to capture all the ideas; make it too long, and the creativity and interest will wane.
- Don’t forget to follow up. Participants appreciate it when their ideas are seriously considered and acted upon quickly and effectively. Follow-up doesn’t have to mean the final solution; it could mean assigning different people to research the ideas that were generated or even planning another round of subsequent brainstorming to build on what was learned in the initial session.
*There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that two brains are not necessarily better than one. Here are some articles and books discussing problems with group brainstorming.
- Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time (Harvard Business Review)
- Why Group Brainstorming Doesn’t Work (Trello)
- Why Brainstorming Groups Kill Breakthrough Ideas (and What to Do Instead) (inc.com)
- There’s a Better Way to Brainstorm (Association for Psychological Science)
- Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (Book by Keith Sawyer)