The myth of the brainstorming session

To have an effective brainstorming session...

January 25, 2014
In the 1940s, advertising executive, Alex Osborn, was frustrated with his employees’ creative output and began experimenting with ways to improve it.
In 1953, Osborn published a book titled Applied Imagination, where he discussed how group brainstorming is a more efficient way to improve ideation compared to individual thought.
To have an effective brainstorming session, Osborn outlined that the group must:
1. Defer judgment (don’t get upset when people say bad ideas)
2. Reach for quantity (come up with as many ideas as possible)
This sounds like simple criteria to follow but the challenge is actually orchestrating brainstorming sessions where these two principles are consistently put into practice.

What goes on in your brain during a group brainstorming session
Unfortunately, the typical brainstorming meetings that many of us experience today do not follow Osborn’s criteria. Even if the intentions of the meetings are good, most break one or both of Osborn’s principles because there are multiple psychological factors at play that are hard to control.

Here’s the most common social factors that make group brainstorming sessions difficult to get right:

1. Fear of judgment from people in positions of power

Studies indicate that it’s difficult for people to remove fear of judgement when presenting ideas in meetings where a boss or someone with a higher status in the company is present.

Since most meetings include a manager, boss, or someone in a position of power, there’s a chance that presenting a bad idea, may make you look like you’re not smart and perhaps unworthy of your job.

This makes you less likely to share quirky ideas for fear that they may come off as bad ones.

2. Extroverts take center stage

When faced with creating ideas during a group setting, extroverts find it more natural to share their ideas; whereas introverts, are more likely to process information internally and make meaning before contributing to the group discussion.

Brain imaging studies have shown that in the presence of external stimulation, introverts show more activity in the regions of the brain that process information, make meaning, and problem solve compared to extroverts.

In fact, the pathway where external stimuli travels in an introvert is much longer than that of a person who is more extroverted, navigating through complex areas of the brain associated with information processing and problem solving.

3. Groups hate scary ideas

No matter how much we say we love creative ideas as a society, our brains are hardwired to fear novelty.This thought process is difficult to control because it’s driven by a built-in motivation to reduce uncertainty in our lives. Making a wrong decision is literally painful for our brains to cope with so we tend to seek out ideas that are safer.

The incubation period: the forgotten step to great ideas

Many brainstorming sessions are thought of as an end goal — that an answer needs be drawn at its conclusion for it to have “worked.”

If the perfect idea doesn’t show itself by the end of the meeting, the brainstorming session is usually deemed a failure.

The problem is, we typically cannot move through this creative process within a single group meeting.

Sometimes the incubation stage itself can take days or weeks before you get a feeling that a good idea is on the way. Many of the most creative people in the world validate this, reporting they only arrive at the best solutions after a constant zig zag through alternatives.

The incubation period can be stressful because there is no clear time as to when inspiration may strike and to make matters worse, it looks like no progress is being made.
This is in spite of research that show the optimal process for creativity is not within a single group setting with time as the official.

The point of brainstorming is to set aside uninterrupted time to think about how to solve a problem. This doesn’t mean a brainstorming session has to always be done in a group setting to be effective.

Start with alone time

When you give yourself alone time to ponder an idea, you don’t have to worry about other people’s perceptions, which opens up more creative avenues for you to explore.

Removing the fear of judgement from others by giving yourself alone time with a concept can help improve your creative output.

Input from someone else or a small group is most valuable once you’ve had some initial time to think about an idea individually.

In 2008, research from the University of Toronto showed that group brainstorming can be more effective if people come to a group session after some initial ideas are already cooking.

In other words, showing up with a blank slate to a meeting is not as effective as coming in with a few boundaries in place.


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