Brainstorming is a problem-solving technique in which a group of people freely and spontaneously present their ideas, build upon each other's visions and intuitions, until something new and unique emerges. The technique is designed so that critical and negative thinking, usual in group settings, is temporarily suspended so that ideas can flow freely and may be expressed without embarrassment.
A.F. Osborne is credited with inventing the technique in 1941. Osborne published his ideas in 1957 in a book entitled Applied Imagination. The well-known author Arthur Koestler (famous for his Darkness at Noon ) laid out the manner in which humor, invention, and artistic creativity all result from unsuspected linkages between seemingly different ideas and images—a phenomenon used in brainstorming. That book was entitled The Act of Creation.
Brainstorming is widely applicable to the solution of any problem whatever it might be. It is used in problems related to concrete physical objects as well as very abstract administrative procedures.
Three critical factors determine the success of a brainstorming effort. First, the group must strive to produce a large quantity of ideas to increase the likelihood that the best solution will emerge. Second, the group must be certain to withhold judgment of the ideas as they are expressed. Third, the group leader must create a positive environment for the brainstorming session and channel the creative energies of all the members in the same direction.
During the brainstorming session, meanwhile, participants should keep in mind the following:
- The aim of the session is to generate a large quantity of ideas. Self-censorship is counterproductive. A brainstorming session is successful when the sheer quantity of ideas forces participants to move beyond preconceived notions and explore new territory.
- Discussions of the relative merits of ideas should not be undertaken as they are voiced; this slows the process and discourages creativity.
- Seniority and rank should be ignored during the session so that all participants feel equal and feel encouraged to be creative.
- A lively atmosphere should be maintained, and when activity lags, someone should strive to introduce a novel and surprising perspective. A brainstorming team might, for example, shift the viewpoint and ask: How would a five-year old look at this problem…?
After the brainstorming portion of the meeting has been completed, the leader or group should arrange all the ideas into related categories to prioritize and evaluate them. These lists can then be evaluated and modified by the group as needed in order to settle on a course of action to pursue. After the conclusion of the meeting, it may be helpful to send participants a copy of the idea lists to keep them thinking about the issue under discussion. The group moderator may ask members to report back later on ideas they considered worthy of action, and to offer any ideas they might have about implementation.
There are a number of variations on the basic theme of brainstorming. In "brainwriting" the members of a group write their ideas down on paper and then exchange their lists with others. When group members expand upon each other's ideas in this way, it frequently leads to innovative new approaches. Another possibility is to brainstorm via a bulletin board, which can be hung in a central office location or posted on a computer network. The bulletin board centers upon a basic topic or question, and people are encouraged to read others' responses and add their own. One benefit of this approach is that it keeps the problem at the forefront of people's minds. Finally, it is also possible to perform solo brainstorming. In this approach, a person writes down at least one idea per day on an index card. Eventually he or she can look at all the cards, shuffle them around, and combine the ideas.
Correl, Linda Conway. Brainstorming Reinvented: a corporate communications guide to ideation. Response Books, 2004.
Cory, Timothy. Brainstorming. IUniverse, December 2003.
Hurt, Floyd. "Beating Brainstorming Blues." Association Management. April 2000.
Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. Penguin Group, 1964, reissued in 1989.
Osborne, A.F. Applied Imagination. Scribner, 1957.
Rasiel, Ethan M. "Some Brainstorming Exercises." Across the Board. June 2000.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI
Brainstorming was developed by Alex F. Osborn in 1939 to enhance the ability of work groups to solve problems creatively. The participants in his early groups called his process “brainstorming” because it seemed to them that they were using their brains “to storm a creative problem and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” According to David Whetten and Kim Cameron, there are four cardinal principles that govern effective brainstorming processes:
- No evaluation of the effectiveness of any given alternative is to be undertaken while the group is generating alternatives. Evaluation of alternatives must come at a later stage in the problem-solving process.
- The leader of the group must place no parameters upon the group regarding what kinds of alternatives or solutions should be suggested; in fact, the team leader should encourage the group to come up with novel ideas that normally would not receive consideration in the organization.
- The quantity of ideas should initially take precedence over the quality of ideas; that is, the leader should push the group to produce a large number of ideas irrespective of their quality.
- Participants should feel free to add to or modify previous ideas proposed by others; it is often the case that marginal ideas that are added upon or altered in some fashion become transformed into powerful solutions. It should be emphasized that ideas do not belong to the individual who presents them, but to the group.
In Hossenlopp and Hass's 2007 book Unearthing Business Requirements, several types of brainstorming sessions are listed, separating the different ways innovation is encouraged. When planning a brainstorming session, it is wise to first decide what type of session to have, how many people to invite, and what the parameters of the session will be—the decisions to be made or problems to solve.
The first type of brainstorming is the Individual session. In this structure, the team leader of the session listens to the input of all members as the problem is explored, and creates a single list of ideas based on the conversations. This adds focus to the brainstorming, and it is often helpful to have a person designated to listen to the others and record the suggestions in a cohesive, clear manner.
The second type of brainstorming is the Open meeting. In an open session, participants call out thoughts and suggestions as inclined, and these thoughts are collected into a list of ideas. Many types of brainstorming go through open phases, and though they can often be confusing, such free-for-all sessions work particularly well for skilled, strong-willed individuals. A listener or designated note-taker is usually required for open sessions as well, although they will not generally have as much authority as in an individual meeting.
The last type of brainstorming is the Structured meeting. Structured sessions are planned and carried out carefully, avoiding any confusion. Usually, this means group participants write down their ideas silently, and then meet for a short time to select the best ideas of the pool to examine. Using these ideas, the group then returns to silent cogitation, refining their thoughts into a second series of ideas, which are again taken and improved. By the end of such a session, the goal is to have several ideas already subject to extensive analysis and ready to be accepted or rejected. Although this type of brainstorming has excellent clarity, it can be stifling for the more creative or strong-willed participants.
No matter what type of brainstorming is planned, having some sort of focus for the meeting is highly advised. Hossenlopp and Hass suggest writing down the goals or purpose of the session somewhere where everyone can see it, whether on a PowerPoint or a whiteboard. This gives a visual center for the participants to gather around.
When generating ideas, it is best to have the members of a group first generate ideas individually and silently rather than shouting out ideas as an entire group. Research indicates that by having people work individually, they generate a greater number of unique ideas than when brainstorming as a group. After individual brainstorming, all ideas can be shared, and further brainstorming as a group can be used.
What topics should be addressed in brainstorming sessions? While theoretically it is possible to brainstorm around any topic, Osborn believed that the problem or topic should be specific rather than general; that is, it should be narrow enough so that the participants can easily comprehend its nature and target their responses to its solution. Also, multiple problems, such as brainstorming about what a new product should be named, how it should be packaged, and how it should be advertised, should not be set before a brainstorming group. The problems should be separated, and brainstormed in separate meetings that are devoted to one of the aforementioned topics.
Osborn believed the ideal size for a brainstorming group was between five and ten people; however, he also contended that with the right kind of leader, large numbers of people of up to one hundred could successfully participate in brainstorming sessions. However, research indicates that larger groups generally do not generate more ideas than small groups.
In order to facilitate success, leaders of brainstorming sessions should do the following:
- Facilitators should teach the principles and objectives of brainstorming to the group before beginning the brainstorming session. Unless all group members understand these rules, the brainstorming effort will fail.
- Facilitators must enforce the rules during the brainstorming session. Inevitably, people will begin evaluating suggestions during the “generation” phase of brainstorming or violate one of the other principles. When such violations occur, the leader must re-teach the principle in question that has been violated, and relaunch the brainstorming process in the group.
- Facilitators must ensure that the ideas are listed so that they can be referred to later when the group analyzes the ideas that it has generated. Idea records are often kept on flip charts, but an individual can record the information and the results can be photocopied and distributed to the participants as well.
- Facilitators should try to encourage all group members to get involved in the session and contribute ideas. Some group members may be reluctant to share their thoughts, which could lead to one or two participants dominating the session. A good facilitator finds ways to draw out ideas from all group members.
- Facilitators need to keep the group focused and prevent participants from getting discouraged. Typically, participants offer several ideas at the beginning of a session; often these are the more obvious alternative solutions to the problem at hand. After these initial ideas are offered, the session might get bogged down as the quantity of ideas subsides. Facilitators should assist the group to push past this initial stage and continue working to come up with other alternatives, because it is at this point where truly creative solutions to problems may be offered.
- Facilitators need to be able to restate and distill poorly articulated ideas in a way that clarifies without altering their meaning.
After a large set of ideas has been generated, they must then be evaluated and culled according to their efficacy. At this point, a large number of options are open to the leader in terms of how the ideas should be evaluated. However, generally it is advisable that the group who generated the ideas be accountable for evaluating them as well. During the analysis stage the leader must facilitate an evaluation of the ideas that the group generated. As the listed ideas are subtracted, merged, and refined in group discussion, it is common for a more comprehensive solution to the problem to be produced than what could have been generated individually or in other group problem-solving processes.
Certain problems plague group synergy when people gather to make decisions. Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” in the 1970s to describe these pitfalls, and today organizations should be wary of groupthink, especially when creating new ideas or seeking inspiration. Most groups are not aware of the mistakes they make under groupthink, and so require some kind of outside check or review of their decisions. Daniel Levi, in his 2007 book Group Dynamics for Teams, gives eight commonly recognized signs of groupthink—“symptoms” that can show up in meetings and lead to poor decisions. These signs should be known and watched for by the members of the brainstorming session:
- Illusion of invulnerability. The group believes its decisions are without fault, and that they will work no matter what.
- Collective rationalization. Ideas are supported throughout the group, so that poor ideas are often encouraged on the basis of the group's high opinion of each other.
- Belief in the group's morality. The group considers itself to be always in the right and is never ethically questionable or capable of doing wrong.
- Pressure on dissenters. Those who disagree with the majority of the group are immediately silenced or belittled, pressured into joining the majority or leaving the group.
- Stereotypes of outside groups. The group believes it is superior to other tools and organizational structures, exaggerating its own importance and forgetting the necessity of other groups or processes.
- Self-censorship. Group members who disagree keep their opinions to themselves. They are afraid to question the others and are convinced it is easier to just agree with everyone rather than bring up negative aspects to ideas.
- Illusion of unanimity. The group believes that all its members agree with all decisions.
- Self-appointed mind guards. The group has members who downplay all negative results and block criticism from reaching the group.
Certain studies have shown that brainstorming may have some inherent flaws when trying to produce new ideas and processes. According to Levi, brainstorming may not be an improvement over the talented efforts of individuals. A study by Mullen, Johnson, and Salas conducted in 1991 showed that the total of individual work—people creating solutions on their own—usually equaled the number of useful ideas produced in brainstorming sessions. Levi also points out that during brainstorming, a great deal of time is wasted in the speaking queue that develops. People who are participating listen to the speaker while waiting to speak their own ideas, and while waiting do not contribute any thought-value to the group. This often creates a series of mental log jams in which people are waiting to say ideas without coming up with any more themselves.
If groupthink and negative employee impressions take over, the brainstorming session can degenerate to a “blamestorming” session. The change occurs when participants begin to blame their managers, restrictions, and organization for personal grievances. At this point, little creativity is possible, and unhealthy grumbling is more likely. Despite some of these faults, organizations believe that brainstorming fosters creativity and encourages its members, and the track record of success for brainstorming has sustained its popularity.
Face-to-face brainstorming sessions may not always generate a large number of creative ideas for a variety of reasons. One problem with face-to-face sessions is called production blocking, which is basically anything that
prevents a group member from verbalizing his or her ideas as they occur. Common production blocks are forgetting and distractions. Another problem with face-to-face sessions is evaluation apprehension, which simply means that individuals are afraid to vocalize their ideas. Evaluation apprehension might be caused because individuals are reluctant to share novel, but incompletely developed, ideas. Group members might also be afraid of how others will react if they suggest unpopular or politically sensitive alternatives. Another potential problem with face-to-face brainstorming is social loafing, which occurs when individuals put forth less effort on a group project than they do working alone.
Electronic brainstorming sessions may reduce some of these problems. In online or network settings, participants can simultaneously contribute ideas, and can usually do so anonymously. Anonymity may make it more likely that individuals will contribute a larger number of creative alternatives. In fact, empirical research suggests that electronic sessions are generally more effective than face-to-face sessions in terms of the number of alternative ideas generated.
Although the anonymity offered by electronic brainstorming sessions may reduce the negative impact of some of the problems associated with face-to-face sessions, other research suggests that social loafing might still be a problem. One study published in the Journal of Management Information Systems found that allowing participants in electronic sessions to view and compare their participation rates against those of others in the group (e.g., a tally of how many ideas were suggested by each person) increased individuals' contributions of ideas, as everyone could readily see who was not participating much. In this study, electronic idea forums that allowed social comparison were the most productive, followed by anonymous electronic forums. Face-to-face sessions were the least productive in terms of the quantity of alternative solutions generated.
BRAINSTORMING AS CREATIVE DECISION MAKING
Because of its emphasis on group participation and creativity, brainstorming may also be seen as a tool for creative decision making. Creative decision making is a group decision-making technique in which group members attempt to generate as many alternative solutions as possible for a given problem. It is one of a number of decision-making tools that are used to ensure consideration of a diverse set of alternative solutions. Other common decision-making techniques include the nominal group technique and the Delphi technique.
Businesses can approach brainstorming in a variety of ways. The online options are useful for a company that wishes to bring together far-flung departments, or talents that cannot easily meet face to face. In Andrew Griffiths' 2007 book 101 Ways to Market Your Business, the author suggests having scheduled meetings for brainstorming. One possible schedule is a monthly meeting, giving all the members of the group time to plan or travel if needed. Griffiths also encourages making the sessions casual. Inviting a smaller group to lunch each month is one possibility—a small expenditure to put the group at ease and allow ideas to flow more easily.
SEE ALSO Group Dynamics; Problem Solving
Ditkoff, Mitchell. “Ten Skills for Brainstorming: Breakthrough Thinking.” Journal for Quality and Participation November/December 1998, 30–32.
Griffiths, Andrew. 101 Ways to Market Your Business: Building a Successful Business Allen and Unwin, 2007.
Hosselhopp, Rosemary, and Kathleen Hass. Unearthing Business Requirements: Elicitation Tools and Techniques Management Concepts, 2007.
Ivancevich, John M., Robert Konopaske, and Michael T. Matteson. Organizational Behavior and Management. 7th ed. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Jones, Gareth R., Jennifer M. George, and Charles W.L.Hill. Contemporary Management. 2nd ed. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Levi, Daniel. Group Dynamics for Teams Sage Publications Inc, 2007.
Osborn, Alex F. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. New York: Scribner, 1953.
Shepherd, Morgan M., et al. “Invoking Social Comparison to Improve Electronic Brainstorming: Beyond Anonymity.” Journal of Management Information Systems 12, no. 3 (1996): 155–168.
Whetten, David A., and Kim S. Cameron. Developing Management Skills. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.
brain·storm / ˈbrānˌstôrm/ • n. 1. a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems. ∎ inf. a sudden clever idea. 2. inf. a moment in which one is suddenly unable to think clearly or act sensibly. • v. [intr.] produce an idea or way of solving a problem by holding a spontaneous group discussion: [as n.] (brainstorming) a brainstorming session.
Brainstorm ★★½ 1983 (PG)
Husband-and-wife scientist team invents headphones that can record dreams, thoughts, and fantasies (VCR-style) and then allow other people to experience them by playing back the tape. Their marriage begins to crumble as the husband becomes more and more obsessed with pushing the limits of the technology; things get worse when the government wants to exploit their discovery. Special effects and interesting camera work punctuate this sci-fi flick. Wood's last film; in fact, she died before production was completed. 106m/C VHS, DVD . Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, Cliff Robertson, Louise Fletcher; D: Douglas Trumbull; W: Bruce Joel Rubin; C: Richard Yuricich; M: James Horner.