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Brainstorming: Not What You Thought

Entrepreneurs use brainstorming in many ways. They use the power of the group to develop new business ideas, choose names for products, design their brand, and decide on marketing or business strategy and plan R&D processes. It is considered to be THE most effective and affordable way for businesses to come up with innovative ideas.

The idea of brainstorming was introduced to the world in the nineteen-forties by Alex Osborn, a partner at Madison Avenue’s most creative advertising agency at the time, B.B.D.O. In his book “Your Creative Power” he explained “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas”. He suggested that when working together, members of the group should use their brain to storm creative ideas. According to Osborn, B.B.D.O’s success is rooted in them implementing brainstorming in every creative process.

Osborn didn’t mind sharing his success secrets. In his book, he suggests that two conditions must exist for a brainstorming process to be successful. The first: members of the group must avoid giving any negative feedback or criticisms. He describes creativity as “so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” therefore If people were worried that their ideas might be mocked by the group, the process would fail. The second: members of the group should focus on quantity and not quality. They should attempt to produce as many ideas as possible because that way “You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

You don’t’ have to be a genius to figure out why brainstorming has been so appealing to businesses. People don’t like to be criticized. They also like to feel productive, smart and unique. When a brainstorming session is over, as group members leave the conference room they look back and see a whiteboard filled with ideas. They feel like they did their job; they were productive, as many of the ideas are theirs, and their egos weren’t hurt because no criticism was heard. One thing is certain; brainstorming is a feel good way to boost productivity.

It could’ve been so great if it actually did what it was invented to do, but it isn’t.

In 1958, a group of researchers from Yale University tested to see if Osborn’s brainstorming paradigm really boosts creativity. They asked 100 participants to come up with as many solutions possible to a series of creative puzzles. Half were divided into groups of four and were asked to use Osborn’s brainstorming rules. The rest were instructed to work independently. Much to the researchers’ surprise, the “solo” participants came up with twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups. The “solo group” recorded another victory in its favor when their solutions were assessed as more feasible and effective by a panel of judges. Many follow up researches came to the same conclusion - Brainstorming doesn’t work.

In today’s business world creativity is very much considered a group process and many researchers, organizational psychologist and business gurus support that notion. Empirically, Osborn’s brainstorming technique does not improve creativity but it does make employees feel creative and productive and thus should not be underestimated.

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