Brainstorming reconsidered

Brainstorming. Such a great idea. And often, such underwhelming results.

isaac asimov. © 2015 Zakeena. Licensed under  CC-BY .

isaac asimov. © 2015 Zakeena. Licensed under CC-BY.

Even the inventor and popularizer of brainstorming—Alex Osborn, a founder of the legendary ad agency BBD&O—got it wrong. He thought that as a group activity, brainstorming was a better way of producing new ideas than working in isolation. Gather the creatives, leave criticism at the door, and watch the ideas flow. That’s how most of us still understand brainstorming.

Problem is, brainstorming isn’t great at producing new ideas. At about the same time researchers at Yale demonstrated this, in the late 1950s, writer Isaac Asimov independently came to the same conclusion—and wrote this excellent rethinking of what brainstorming could be.

The stumbling block for Osborn and the rest of us is that most people don’t understand the creative process (including most creative people). But Asimov understood it. He knew that creative problem-solving was best done by people in isolation. Yet he also knew that creativity—“the making of connections not ordinarily seen or made”—could be jump-started if information or ideas were shared that could inspire connections later on.

Asimov had very strong opinions on how these “cerebration sessions,” as he called them, should be conducted. Definitely check out his brief article, but here’s a synopsis:

  • Choose the right people. Ideally they’ll be experts in the subject, or at least knowledgeable, and a bit unconventional.

  • Create the atmosphere. Relaxed, permissive, informal. Instead of the office conference room or other familiar workspaces, choose an off-site location that feels unbuttoned.

  • Remove the pressure. The session should be structured play, not work. Avoid any suggestion that it’s about producing results.

  • Moderate lightly. Choose a moderator with a light touch—“a gentle shepherd who can stir and guide the discussion” with the least possible interference.

Remember: the goal isn’t to come up with great ideas. It’s to nurture the creation of great ideas later on, by exposing how participants’ are thinking about the problem, their reactions to each other’s ideas, and “new facts and fact combinations.”