Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session.  They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible.  No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin!  After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas.  Right?brainstorm word cloud

Well, maybe not.

Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee.  In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it].  It doesn’t work.”  He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water.  Experience doesn’t back it up.

Can this possibly be true?  Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time.  And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”

So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?

Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity.   He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions.  He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized.  Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.

Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value?  Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.


7 thoughts on “Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

  1. Brainstorming is the conception stage of an idea that results in real value. Everything a human being produces has a life cycle – and a valuable idea is no exception. Before brainstorming comes the recognition that there is a need for a valuable idea. That need is the trigger of the life cycle for a valuable idea, and could be considered the preconception state of the valuable idea. I use the human organic life cycle of: preconception, conception, gestation, birth, development, work, decline, death, and disposal. If brainstorming is the conception state of a valuable idea, then gestation is the application of all the critical thinking that triggers the debates. This transition from divergent thinking (brainstorming) and convergent thinking (debate) results in the birth of an idea worth developing into a solution that can work. Brainstorming is not an end in itself; rather, it is the beginning of a valuable idea.

  2. The New Yorker article caught quite a few people’s attention. Today’s LearnVest Daily online article ( was about better brainstorming and cited the article . What strikes me most is that none of these articles talk about how the ideas generated in brainstorming sessions are actually put to use. I agree that there are different approaches to brainstorming – some better than others. But brainstorming needs to be recognized as part of a larger process. Good ideas remain ethereal until they are put into action.

    • Thanks Supie, and great point. Nothing on outcomes. I was mulling that over as well – “number of ideas” happens to be the primary indicator for a successful brainstorm in the New Yorker article, and in the LearnVest one you pointed us to (thanks for the reference). Nothing about the application of ideas, or how that translates into results. It begs the question of what are the right indicators for a successful brainstorm, or for any innovation-related meeting, for that matter. We’ll certainly need to explore this some more.

  3. Jonathan, great article with provoking thoughts. I would add that sometimes brainstorming is helpful and sometimes it is not, it depends on what the group needs to accomplish. What is the problem the group needs to solve? Once there is a well defined problem statement, the right tool can be used to solve the problem.

    • Very true, Christopher. One thing we haven’t talked about enough here is just how contextual this is. As much as we get tired of the consultants and lawyers who say, “well that depends…”, there is usually truth to that. And I like the outcomes-focused question you presented: What is the problem we’re trying to solve. Thanks.

  4. I recently read a terrific Harvard Business Review article called “Breaking Thinking from Inside the Box” where this very topic is discussed. What resonated with me was when they said “A semistructured approach can generate great ideas even in familiar settings—and works better than unfettered brainstorming or strict quantitative analysis.” So let’s not throw it out so quickly but find ways of making brainstorming work more effectively. Some things they suggest are to ask the RIGHT questions and orchestrate the process more specifically. For example, if you are trying to innovate on your product, instead of asking what are new innovative product ideas, ask more specifically, who uses our product in ways not intended or expected? Or ask, what breakthroughs or efficiencies have we made that could be applied in a different industry? Next, be deliberate about the process, for example, clarify what constitutes a good idea by setting resource parameters such as staffing or dollars. They also mention that you can get more out of the same people by breaking norms. In a group of 10 or more people most people will have limited time to speak. Break that group up into smaller groups of 4 where everyone will have more airspace and break out of the meeting room norms. This is a great article I would recommend for anyone who wants to know more about effective product innovation and brainstorming.

    • Very insightful. Thanks Ghazal. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as they say. Rather, be more effective and focused in how we drive innovation and creativity. I like your examples. And I’ll certainly look at the article you suggested.

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