In an arena where “time is money”, brainstorming is not necessarily the best usage of time and sometimes an actual waste of time. Studies show that brainstorming is an outdated practice and not all that effective when it comes to generating new ideas. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “No idea is a bad idea.” It’s false, there’s lots of bad ideas and brainstorms are usually where they’re born.

Before I explain what I think is a better alternative, let’s identify what a brainstorm is.

The Brainstorm

Developed by a real life “Mad Men” in the late 1940’s, Alex Osborn introduced “group brainstorming” with four inherent rules.

  1. Generate as many ideas as possible
  2. Prioritize unusual or original ideas
  3. Combine and refine the ideas generated
  4. Abstain from criticism during the exercise 

This sounds about like every brainstorm I’ve been in, how about you? The logic behind brainstorming is based on two, old psychological premises: The presence of others has motivating effects and that quantity leads to quality. While this was probably a revolutionary idea for its time, today’s world demands so much more. 

Why Brainstorms Aren’t Effective

Social Loafing – Remember college and high school group projects where at least one person didn’t do anything but still got the same grade from your hard work? (Thanks for nothing – Garret Shaw!) This is called social loafing and believe it or not, it still happens in company group projects long after we graduate.

Anxiety – People worry about what their co-workers will think of them after sharing an abstract idea, thus limiting creativity.

Don’t Play to the Level of Your Opponent – If you’ve ever played organized sports, then you know exactly where this is going – the same principle happens in a brainstorm. The most talented group members end up matching the creative performance of their less talented counterparts.

Wait Your Turn – Studies have shown that brainstorms are limited because only one idea from a single person can be expressed at a time – no matter the size of the group. Studies also claim that the number of ideas level off with more than 6 people and that the number of ideas per person declines as the group size increases.

Ok, So What Should We Do Instead?

As a Creative Director in the experiential world, I’ve had my fair share of crappy brainstorms, many of which I was no help. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s what we’ve been trained to do.

Essentially brainstorming sessions should be a place to challenge the ideas that have already been vetted – not invented on the spot. By doing this we accomplish three main things:

  • Eliminate traditional brainstorming and increase efficiency
  • Emphasize unlimited independent thinking and ideation
  • Utilize creative leadership to merge the very best ideas

Instead of coming to a brainstorm unprepared, each participant should explore, research, and question their own initial, thought processes. Then, brainstorm as many ideas as they can on their own. This is the time and place to scrutinize all those run-of-the-mill ideas.

When a large list has been created, the very best ideas should be picked out. These are the ideas that should be brought to a brainstorm. Think about it, if everyone follows this path, the brainstorm will start with everybody’s best work right from the beginning! Having a group discussion about only the most inspired ideas is more time efficient and raises the bar for superior ideation.

From there, it’s up to a strong creative leadership team to analyze, merge and tweak everyone’s best ideas into what the client desires and will actually see. Happy Brainstorming! Or not?