We got to talking about brainstorming this week (a brainstorm on brainstorming?). Especially for those in the agency world, it’s an activity you’ve probably taken part in more than you can count.
A recent article in the New Yorker, Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth, basically concluded that brainstorming doesn’t work. As with most New Yorker articles, it’s extremely well researched and therefore pretty compelling, but among the group at Untold, we all seemed to think there was value in brainstorming – it’s just a matter of having the right parameters in place.
Brainstorming became big in the 1950s when Alex Osborn, one of the founders of BBDO, popularized it in his bestselling book, “Your Creative Power.” His original definition is great: “using the brain to storm a creative problem – and doing so in a commando fashion, with each storming attacking the same objective.” The key ideas were no criticism and quantity over quality. In theory, this would generate many ideas quickly, as well as build positive sentiment within a team.
The New Yorker article highlighted a number of studies showing that working alone or working in a group where criticism and debate are encouraged were actually more effective.
We all seemed to agree that some debate and discussion strengthens a brainstorm, so perhaps right there the traditional definition starts to unravel. Still, the notion of bringing together a group with varied perspectives and a range of strengths seems invaluable. So how do you ensure a good brainstorm? Here’s a handful of other factors we came up with:
- Around 3-5 people. With 2 people, one view invariably dominates. With 6+, the group seems to naturally divide into two sub-groups.
- Choose a group with different areas of expertise. Introducing unfamiliar ideas will spur creativity.
- If you have a couple people who have worked together for years, throw in one or two who are newer to shake things up.
- Try introducing people throughout the session. Start with 3 people, then add the 4th and 5th partway in to inject some fresh perspective without being influenced by what already took place.
- Clearly define the challenge. Provide the group with a specific problem or need to address. The better you know your problem, the higher quality the answers will be.
- Provide research in advance. It’s likely your team of brainstormers won’t all be intimately knowledgable with the problem already. Give them a brief and research beforehand to get them acquainted and improve the accuracy of their ideas.
- Try spreading out the areas of focus over the session. If it’s a complicated challenge, there may be multiple specific subtopics and this will allow you to address each one evenly and in depth.
- Lastly, your physical space is important. Anyone who’s been to Untold before knows we love a giant whiteboard. Check out this gallery of other digital agency spaces which spur creativity. I’m particularly envious of the garden!
So what do you think? Is brainstorming an essential part of the creative process or hours of your life wasted? What’s your best tip for a good brainstorm?