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Why Brainstorming is Only Half the Battle

Written by 
Megan Landes
July 14, 2014

In the past few years, I’ve seen a number of articles that proclaim a rather unsettling message: that brainstorming doesn’t work. Or rather, that it doesn’t work as well as we give it credit for. And for every one of these articles, there is another that fiercely defends the “sacred” process of brainstorming: the makings of a Great Brainstorming Debate.

For the brainstormers of the world, to say that brainstorming doesn’t work is like saying that red and blue don’t make violet. It is fundamentally unfathomable. But maybe it’s not that brainstorming doesn’t work. Maybe we’ve just been thinking about it wrong.

We’re not going to tell anyone how to brainstorm. But we may challenge you to think about it a little differently (or at least, to not stop there).

The technical definition of brainstorming, according to Alex Osborn, Father of Brainstorming, is “a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members.”

Brainstormers at work

Brainstorming was founded on the idea that all criticism should be withheld so that no one's creative voice was stifled. This methodology has stirred some controversy in the design world, because there are lots of people that argue that the whole Thou Shalt Not Criticize commandment, which is the very cornerstone of brainstorming, is actually counterproductive to creativity.

This is the basis on which the New Yorker wrote a thought-provoking, highly controversial article in 2012 called “Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” which bordered on “blasphemous” for many designers and big innovation companies who are big believers in the sacred art of brainstorming.

Really, though, the title “Why Brainstorming May or May Not Work Depending On What You’re Using It For” would have maybe been more accurate, although a little less catchy. But I digress.

If our goal is simply to generate as many ideas as possible, deferring judgement may not be such a bad thing. If you are, in fact, aiming to pool a big bunch of ideas, then brainstorming is the way to go. If you want to take your ideas further, brainstorming may not be your best bet. But more on that later.

Quantity comes from Brainstorming

The ideology of brainstorming stems from the desire to think divergently. Divergent thinking is defined as the ability to find more than one answers to a question, and withholding the idea that there is one “correct” answer. In one of my favorite videos of all time, Sir Ken Robinson discusses divergent thinking in the context of the question, “how many uses can you think of for a paper clip?” Most people, he says, will come up with 10-15.

People who are considered “geniuses” at divergent thinking, however, come up with 200 because they are not afraid to air on the side of ridiculous and work under the assumption that maybe the paper clip is 200 feet tall and made of foam. And this is exactly what we want. While divergent thinking is not a synonym for innovation, says Sir Ken Robinson, it is an "essential capacity for creativity."

Divergent Thinking

This fearlessness to air on the side of ridiculous is exactly what Osborn had been afraid would be extinguished by introducing criticism to brainstorming.

What if someone had said, “no, paper clips are always metal and small?” Then we’re back to 15 possibilities instead of 200. Letting people run with their ideas, no matter how absurd they may seem, is great if you’re on a mission to collect as many ideas as you can, and then work from there.

Let’s apply this to something a little more realistic than coming up with all possible uses for a paper clip. What if, instead of a paper clip, we’re trying to come up with all the possible uses for a product feature or a new technology? The same thing applies. Divergent thinking is good; we want people to be as open-minded and free-thinking as possible. We want to allow people to think outside the box.

A big pool of ideas is good to have. Even if some ideas that may seem a little more absurd, there may be pieces of one that enhance another that’s a little less absurd and a little more do-able.

But now that you have this big pool of ideas, what do you do with them?

We are not done after brainstorming: a big pool of ideas is not our finished product. Now, it's time for the next step: synthesis.

Quality comes from Criticism

If we want to really get past having a big batch of ideas, we need to be able to crack them open, to cut away the parts we don’t want and mix and match the parts we do. Otherwise it’s just a big heap of ideas. The next step is to make them greater than the sum of their (many) parts.

This, my friends, is where synthesis comes in.

In his TED talk ,“The Phenomenon of Synthesis,” Jon Kolko talks about design synthesis as the step between design thinking and development. He defines it as “an abductive sense-making process of manipulating, organizing, pruning and filtering data in an effort to produce information and knowledge.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 7.43.06 PM

The “pruning” part of this definition implies the stripping away all of the things that are unfeasible or that won’t work for one reason or another, and then work with the resources that you have (aka lots of ideas) to work towards the implementation of innovative solution to the problem you started with.

In other words, this pruning involves convergent thinking, which pretty much just boils down to a more logical way of thinking to arrive at one solution. When we’re funneling ideas down from many to one possible answer or solution, we are practicing convergent thinking.

This is where criticism becomes important. In order to really get the most of the ideas you’re left with after brainstorming, criticism is key because it is what makes a pool of ideas evolve into an innovative solution.

Charlan Nemeth, a Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, has done lots of research on the process of brainstorming. She argues that we need criticism because it wakes us up; it forces us to actually think harder and generate better ideas because we are alert and pushing ourselves to work around opposition. She says, “dissent stimulates thought that is broader, that takes in more information and that, on balance, leads to better decisions and more creative solutions.”

Criticism also breaks us out of a predictable, linear way of thinking.

It helps us filter out our more mundane thoughts and leaves us with solutions that are more innovative because we’ve pushed past what Nemeth called the “first layer of predictability.”

This whole “dissent inspires creativity” thing makes a lot of sense. One of my favorite professors, who teaches in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, said that we need people to disagree because that’s where creativity is born: the friction between opposing ideas creates sparks, and those sparks ignite innovation. That’s really the magic of group collaboration.

That is why architecture critiques work. For anyone that has ever had their work be the subject of an architecture critique, they know that they are not for the faint of heart. The feedback, though it may be harsh, challenges you to shift your perspective and expand the way you think about the concept you had presented. You use this criticism to push and pull and break and remake your ideas until they evolve to be much better than, and sometimes unrecognizable from, the idea you began with.

Architecture Critiques

This is what has to happen after brainstorming. The issue is not that brainstorming doesn’t work. The issue is that we expect brainstorming to give us something it wasn’t designed to give us.

After brainstorming comes synthesis, and it is there that we seek the final product that brainstorming gave us all the blocks to build.

A Little Something for Everyone

Maybe you’re naturally more of a divergent thinker; maybe you’re a dreamer, and thinking outside the box is as natural for you as inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. And maybe not. Maybe you thrive within a more linear, logical line of thinking. Jon Kolko says, “we’re not gonna get the same results when you do a design problem and you do a design problem and you do a design problem… and that’s good.”

It’s very good -- it’s why we have teams!  Everyone’s thought process is different, and a million different people will approach the same problem a million different ways.

Having a balanced team of people who think really divergently and really convergently and everywhere in between is important: the diversity of teams opens up a whole world of opinions and different perspectives that smooth out the rough edges of our ideas and fill in the gaps we may have missed.

So the moral of the story is: after the divergent thinking helps us collect all of our ideas, we can use convergent thinking to distill them and make them better.

Convergent v. Divergent

As with most things in life, balance is important: we can use divergent thinking (brainstorming) and convergent thinking (criticism) to complement each other in the quest to come up with novel ideas and solutions.

Just in case you’re wondering how you can use MURAL for all of this:

  • use MURAL to go all-digital with your brainstorming session, either in person like they did at IDEO or remotely: now you can write or draw out your ideas, just like analog brainstorming
  • take advantage of the flexible canvas to organize and your ideas and cluster and re-cluster related ideas to make new connections: this will help you come up with more solutions and improve your synthesis of your big wall of ideas
  • Comment on different ideas to start conversations and dive deeper into different ideas
  • Features of the Future to use: the 2x2 matrix to help you further sort and synthesize your ideas, and the voting feature that will help you get results faster and streamline decision making.

About the author

About the authors

Megan Landes

Neuroscience nerd, peanut butter aficionado. Never found without colored pencils.