Brainstorming, which owes its popularity to Madison Avenue adman Alex Osborn, who pioneered the concept at BBDO in the 1950s, has provided a convenient group-based structure for generating ideas. A focus on free association in a criticism free environment is the basis of the model, which is still popular everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms today.
However, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Problem is brainstorming doesn’t unlock creativity; instead, it stifles it. Numerous studies reveal that brainstorming groups think of fewer ideas than people working alone, and group performance gets worse as size increases.
Part of what we know about neuroscience explains why formal brainstorming fails. The brain can’t make the necessary connections needed for brilliant insight in a rigid environment. There’s too much pressure and too much influence. People instinctively mimic others’ opinions, leading to suggestions and thoughts that are often predictable and stale.
Moreover, the absence of criticism, one of Osborn’s central tenets, is the model’s biggest flaw. Debate and criticism help generate the flow of ideas—not hinder it—because they force us to consider other perspectives and challenge our own. Repetition stifles creativity. The key is in the interaction: differing perspectives clashing in unpredictable ways, drawing from (seemingly) unrelated connections. Example: Apple, which structures its departments to work together as a unit. Chaotic, no doubt, but all the groups—from design to manufacturing to sales—interact continuously, sharing and generating ideas in what’s called concurrent or parallel production.
Studies show that some people may be more productive and creative in solitude, which is why a complementary approach, combining elements from the social and the solitary, is most successful in creating a stimulating environment. 3M has been on the front lines of encouraging individual innovation since the 1970s with its “15 percent time”—the program that lets employees use a portion of their paid time to tinker with their own thoughts and ideas. The policy has produced some of the company’s bestselling products, including Post-it Notes.
Google allows employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time working on personal projects as part of its Innovation Time Off initiate. According to Marissa Mayer, former vice president of search products and user experience (now Yahoo CEO), half of all new product launches at the company—Gmail and Google News, for example—have come from the program.
Whether in a group setting or in solitude, innovation begins with the individual. Most make the mistake of equating innovation with revolutionary breakthroughs. It’s much more than just cutting-edge technology, however. People innovate every day, often right from their kitchen tables. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Eric von Hippel studied household innovation in the United Kingdom and found that 6.1 percent of adults, or 2.9 million people, had created or modified a product or object to be more efficient.
Unique ideas blossom best when your brain is relaxed and engaged in something other than the task at hand. Steamy showers, ambling walks—anything other than rigid brainstorming sessions. These remove us from the mundanity of modern life (the bills, the housework) and put us in a more “associative” state. This is when serendipity happens; your mind ties new threads together to form new ideas.
The spontaneous, unpredictable nature of innovation makes it ill-advised to try to plan or structure it in advance. That’s why traditional brainstorming is ineffective; it’s useful for expanding and refining ideas, sure, but not generating them.