If you’ve been part of a failed brainstorm, you may agree with the claim that brainstorming is dead.  Naysayers believe brainstorming is fad of the past that doesn’t work, and perhaps never did.

The inefficacy of brainstorming is not a new argument.  Brainstorming has been scrutinized since its inception in 1948, when advertising executive Alex F. Osborn first coined the term.  In the years to follow, research studies from Yale, Harvard, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, and M.I.T. have attempted to disprove the overall value of brainstorming with varying degrees of success.

This January, the New Yorker published a report called “Groupthink: The brainstorming myth.”  In this piece, Jonah Leher revived the “debunking” brainstorm debate and explored the reasons why “brainstorming doesn’t really work.”

We disagree.

As strategists, we believe the focus of the debate should not be whether brainstorming is dead, but get to the root of the issue—to point to the misconceptions about brainstorming and determine how best to use it.

In today’s corporate environment, one of the most challenging tasks is to carve out the space for an individual to think clearly for more than 3 minutes without interruption.  With key decision makers held hostage by back-to-back meetings, we understand the urge to dismiss brainstorms.  But, if you want people who are smart, who understand the market, and who have the business insight to be able to unravel the complex problems that your market faces, you need to carve out the time for them to think.  Brainstorms are a great tool for creating new ideas and strategies for growth and competitive advantage.

At the most basic level, a well-structured brainstorm removes the static from the day, creates the time and space for ideas to flow, and sets the stage for ideas to take shape.  Then, the way participants frame the exercise, and ultimately tackle it, can make or break the outcome.  Brainstorm cannot be another word for “free-for-all.”   Here are some ways to be sure your brainstorming session is fruitful:

Set the foundation.  Lay the ground work.  Say what you will about brainstorming being an “antiquated” practice.  The founding principles were written in order to inspire creativity, unlock the imagination, and avoid the detrimental effects of negative feedback on innovation.

When Osborn banished everyone’s inner critic from the room in the ‘40s, he made sure to set some friendly ground rules.  Value quantity over quality.  Withhold criticism and suspend judgment.  He also included one vital and often overlooked rule:  in order for a brainstorm to be successful, participants must address and respond to a specific question.  Without this, the brainstorm is an exercise in futility.

At Catalyst, structured brainstorms garner tangible and practical results.  Why does our approach to brainstorming work?

It’s about asking the right questions.  The trigger to a successful brainstorm is a single and specific question.  Enter with a predetermined structure and a clear set of expectations, objectives, and goals.  Always keep in mind the central question that you’re trying to solve or “storm.”  The final piece that unlocks the brainstorm puzzle is to bookend the session with an equal level of structure:  a clear exit strategy.

The brainstorm is only half the equation.  Now what?  You’ve been there dozens of times before.   The brainstorm meeting has wrapped.  The whiteboard and flip charts overflow with shiny new ideas, charts, mind maps, bullet points, doodles, diagrams.  Coffee cups and food wrappers litter the table.  The creative juices stop flowing and are replaced by the static of upcoming meetings or appointments.  Everyone stares at the bundle of ideas, daunted by the task ahead—how to wade through all those new ideas to get to the answer?  You’re in that “now what?” moment that we all come up against after a brainstorm wraps.

Here’s where we break out the defibrillator paddles on the brainstorm.  By valuing the quantity of ideas at the onset, inspired out-of-the-box thinking emerges.  But the volume of those ideas is only the end game for the brainstorm itself.  The end game is quality ideas.  In order to get there, you must boil down the lists into discrete ideas.  Use a predefined set of criteria to gauge what ideas are worth pursuing.  Solid criteria let you filter and prioritize the brainstorm results, discerning the game-changing ideas from the half-baked ones.

Ready for your next brainstorm?

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