A guide to brainstorming.

Brainstorming came to public attention in a book – Your Creative Power – written in the 1940s by Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency BBDO. Since then it has become one of the most popular forms of idea generation, for both individuals and groups, in business and in everyday life. This article explores how brainstorming works, its advantages and disadvantages, and the best ways it can be used in the business environment.

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a process of idea generation that focuses on quantity and breadth of ideas. The aim is to get as many different varied ideas as possible within a set space of time.

A brainstorming session involves two basic processes: idea generation and idea recording i.e. coming up with ideas and writing them down. Unlike other forms of idea generation, there is generally little thought given to the idea's suitability, although this does vary depending on the model of brainstorming used.

In most brainstorming methods, no negative feedback is allowed. This refers to both negative feedback within the framework of the discussion e.g. analytical criticism, and also a general process rule to encourage the development of new ideas without fear. This is applicable to both group brainstorming sessions (criticism of others’ ideas) and individual brainstorming (self-criticism).

Free association is encouraged during group brainstorming sessions, as is using previous suggestions to augment thinking and cross boundaries.

Brainstorming method

Alex Osborn’s brainstorming method is run on four principles:

  • Focus on quantity: the more ideas generated, the greater the chance that an innovative solution will be found to the problem at hand
  • Lack of criticism: criticism should be withheld during idea generation, with the emphasis on ‘moving forwards’ with ideas, piggybacking on other ideas, and the creation of new constructs
  • Unusual ideas: unusual solutions are welcomed as a way to get people ‘thinking outside the box’ and finding innovative ways to solve the problem
  • Combine ideas: participants are encouraged to combine ideas, build on concepts and work together to build better ideas through the process of association.

Osborne said a group of 12 participants, made up of both experts and novices, was beneficial. He also said that brainstorming sessions should focus on a specific problem rather than several problems, which can confuse the process.

What are the benefits of brainstorming?

Proponents of brainstorming refer to the ‘absence of fear’ that participants feel when their ideas are not criticised, and are thus more likely to speak up and propose new ideas.

Brainstorming is also time-effective, creating a large number of potential solutions in a short space of time. Although these ideas will then need to be analysed for their potential effectiveness, the participants then have a tangible set of data to work with, rather than having to analyse ideas purely in the mind.

What are the disadvantages of brainstorming?

Critics say that brainstorming’s strengths are actually its weaknesses – that the lack of criticism, and therefore self-analysis, reduces the amount of thought that goes into ideas so that the ideas that are generated are often ill-tailored to the task at hand. On a base level, this theory supports the use of criticism as a useful framework that encourages people to analyse and critique their own ideas so they are the best they can be before presenting them to an audience.

Some psychologists, such as Keith Sawyer at Washington University, believe that brainstorming results in fewer ideas than if each participant works alone and then later pools their ideas.

Brainstorming variations

Osborne’s original method of brainstorming has been altered to create new similar but distinct variants. These include:

  • Nominal group technique: participants anonymously suggest ideas which are then voted on; the best ideas are often returned to the individual participants for further development. Participants may form groups to concentrate on one specific part of an idea
  • Group passing technique: a circular group is formed. Each person writes down an idea, which is then passed round so that each person can add to and develop the idea
  • Guided brainstorming: participants are given constraints in order to encourage a broad range of ideas. Constraints can be as simple as limited time through to adopting a particular mind set in order to see various points of view on a topic
  • Directed brainstorming: this works on the principle of constraining the idea creation space to encourage creativity. Each participant is given a sheet of paper and is told the brainstorming question. They write down one idea; the sheets are swapped (sometimes many times) and the participants must improve the idea with one extra response.

Should my business use brainstorming?

Like all methods of idea generation, brainstorming has both advantages and disadvantages. It’s a useful tool to be used when many ideas are needed quickly. But the individual mental process of coming up with ideas can be hampered by a lack of fear, as the individual is less likely to self-analyse the idea, look for weak points, and see if it’s appropriate.

Typically, the less a company knows about the idea it needs, the more appropriate brainstorming is in the situation.

For example, if a company is looking for a name, brainstorming may be appropriate. However, if there’s a problem with employee misconduct, brainstorming would not be appropriate as there are finite courses of action to take, which must fit within a framework of professional employee management.

Osborn, the advertising executive widely credited for ‘inventing’ brainstorming, said that problems that require judgement are poor for brainstorming sessions e.g. “should we go ahead with the merger?”

Innovation can also be encouraged in the workplace with flexible working, as co-working becomes more and more popular.