September 29, 2017

Some people question the value of brainstorming, claiming that face-to-face brainstorming is inefficient compared to coming up with ideas all alone, casting doubt on the value of brainstorming as a problem-solving or idea-generating technique.

After doing some research of their own, two Stanford University professors, Robert Sutton and Andrew Hargadon, argued the folly of judging the practice of brainstorming solely on the number of ideas generated per person.

The pair of professors became interested in doing a study on brainstorming when a colleague told them it had been “proven” that brainstorming is ineffective. They studied the technique and outcomes of brainstorming at Palo Alto, California-based IDEO, the largest product design firm in the country.

Brainstorming is a key tool in the generation of new product designs at IDEO. At IDEO, designers strive to become better brainstorm participants as well as better brainstorm facilitators. IDEO’s brainstorming rules are always clearly posted in the conference rooms where brainstorms are held:

1. Defer judgment.

2. Build on each other’s ideas.

3. One conversation at a time.

4. Stay focused on the topic.

5. Encourage “wild” ideas.

Contrary to the opinion of other researchers that number of ideas generated measures the efficiency of the concept, building on ideas is more important than quantity of ideas, said IDEO facilitators.

Sutton and Hargadon found brainstorms at IDEO had at least six other important consequences in addition to generating new ideas:

  • Supporting the organizational memory of design solutions
  • Providing skill variety and expansion
  • Supporting an attitude of wisdom (acting with knowledge while doubting what one knows)
  • Creating a competition for status based on technical skill
  • Impressing clients, who often observe and participate
  • Providing income — some clients hire IDEO just to brainstorm for them

Also, at IDEO a formal brainstorm often sets the stage for organizers to get help from others informally for weeks after the “kick-off” brainstorm adjourns.

IDEO designers described their organization as “one long brainstorm that never stops.” Brainstorm participants typically take ownership of brainstormed problems and continue working on solutions on their own time.

If you’re not using brainstorming — ongoing — and making it part of your workplace culture, you’re losing a valuable opportunity for your employees to participate and contribute to the growth and success of your organization, to develop their skills, and to give you a competitive edge.

Suggestion: Make it an organizational goal to be “one long brainstorm that never stops.”

© 2017