brainstorm v storming the brainBrainstorming has long been a feature of interactive sessions and while it certainly has its uses, it is often used for the wrong purpose. I’m grateful for an article in Silas Amos’s excellent Design Gazzette blog, where he takes a wry and sceptical look at brainstorming. He endorsed my view that brainstorming is not a useful technique for coming up with creative ideas. It can be very useful in selection and development, identifying routes and approaches and building processes. Creativity is in individual activity – people come up with original ideas, not groups. Creative concepts need a ‘Eureka moment’.  Of course, an individual may come up with an idea in a brainstorming session, Eureka moment can happen anywhere, but a brainstorm can often work against that idea even seeing the light of day.

The problem with brainstorming is that it is at the mercy of group dynamics. We all know the mantra that, ‘Thers is no such thing as a bad idea, and all ideas are equal.’ Unfortunately all groups are not equal. Often teams within companies come with a lot of baggage. Powerful personalities and hierarchies can hold sway and personal prejudices prevent great ideas from being voiced – or worse, they are voiced and then fail to be recognised. Even with groups of individuals who have never met before, positions are negotiated and personality defines people’s roles.

It’s not all bad news, however, because brainstorming groups can be very good at the next stage in the innovation process. Innovation = creativity + application. Application, like brainstorming is process-based. Brainstorms are great for selection, opportunity recognition, development action points and commercialization identification.

When we need creative ideas, we need the opposite of brainstorming – it can be useful to storm the brain. It may appear counter-intuitive, but the brain is actually very good at dealing with lots of problems at the same time. We may have a single issue in conscious focus, but the subconscious brain is working on dozens if not hundreds of tasks. In fact, the subconscious activity is far more powerful than the bit we are aware of. Just think of how many times you have been wrestling with a problem only to have to give up and go and do something else and later when focusing on a totally different task, the answer to the first pops into your mind. How often have you been working into the evening and finally admit ‘defeat’ and go to bed, then the following morning a clear answer comes into your mind while in the shower or driving to work?

Taking a break to allow the brain to run ‘off-line’ is a great technique for facilitators and seemingly un-related games or tasks. Synectics, the problem-solving methodology developed by George M. Prince, uses what it calls ‘excursion’, time spent on totally different activities to allow brains to work on solutions in the background. In the same way, it is natural for the brain to work on multiple problems, we do it all the time, we’re just not aware.

By all means use brainstorming for commercialising and exploiting ideas, but for creativity, leave it to problem solving power of the individual brain. Given the right environment creativity will flourish.

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