Brainstorming Is Dead. Long Live Brainstorming

One of the more controversial entries in the book Innovation MYTHS and MYTHstakes – the real truth behind popular beliefs, is the chapter I wrote about brainstorming.

Because brainstorming simply doesn’t work.

That is, if by working, you mean yielding new, breakthrough, never-before-seen ideas and concepts.

New research proves that brainstorming as you know it, produces fewer ideas than if you just sat by yourself in a cornfield, like our friend the Scarecrow, and pondered ideas for a spell.

These days you hear the word “brainstorming” in popular speech about as often as you hear trademarked brand names like Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Xerox.  But did you know that “brainstorming” is a brand name, too?

Back in 1957, Alex Osborn is credited with coining the word to refer to the approach he developed for idea generation.  Now the term is used so generically, its specific meaning is often lost.  But be aware:  contrary to popular belief, brainstorming is an inferior method of generating ideas!

As a reader of this Blog, you’re probably a decision-maker who is frequently tasked with the slippery notion of ideation.

Whether the ideas you’re charged to come up with represent solutions to a manufacturing challenge, or novel ways to easily visualize how complex chemistry works to the consumer’s benefit in a shampoo, brainstorming is typically a group activity.

Let me guess.  You shuffle into a room, pressed for time.  Most participants bring their laptops and lovingly cradle their SmartPhones throughout.  Imposing easels of crisp, blank white paper stare back at the assembly.  The same folks that are always invited to these things are there.  No one could be called a pacesetter with a demonstrated ability in creative problem-solving.

There isn’t anyone clearly leading things, either.  When the group’s collective well begins to run dry, there is no one to point them in a new direction.  Appreciable periods of silence begin to appear between responses.

Ugh.  Can I go home now?

Finally, someone is brave enough to shout out the same idea he had last year (these are known as “pet ideas” and they make frequent appearances).  As soon as a new idea or two or floated, inexorably it is shouted down as unworkable, impossible, and perhaps even unpatriotic!

Why does this happen again and again?  It’s because typical brainstorming puts too many opposing forces at war with each other.  Logic vs. creativity. Blue sky vs. rain clouds. The spirit against the flesh. The Bengals vs. the Steelers.  And most importantly, the left side of your brain against the right side.

So what’s the answer?  Come back to this blog and I’ll illustrate it for you.  Literally.

Mark Smith is the Chief Creative Officer for Upstream 360 and the father of a teenage daughter.  He stays motivated by the twin powers of doubt and insecurity, while his approach to the work is making it legitimately interesting, shareable, and something people can connect with.  


Mark is also an author of the book Innovation Myths and Mythstakes, available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle and coming soon on Audible.