Is Brainstorming Dead?
The Overlooked and Undeniable Power of Group Brainstorming
Why brainstorming is not dead - and how we can experience the power of brainstorming when it’s less about generating new ideas and more about the people in the room.
By Tim Schuster
“All right, guys,” says the meeting leader, “let’s brainstorm ideas for the fall campaign. We need to hit a home run this year. No idea is a bad idea. Who wants to start?”
We’ve been there. It’s 2:05p on a Tuesday, and it’s time for another pull-my-teeth brainstorming session. Huddled in a hot conference room with colleagues in post-lunch food coma, with sticky notes, stale coffee, and faces of desperation. You are trying to come up with creative, “out of the box” ideas.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Sometimes brainstorming delivers a breakthrough idea, but most of the time the group decides on a slightly different version of last year’s ideas. At other times, the session becomes a guessing game for what idea won’t get vetoed by a manager (who isn’t in the room). After an hour or so, the meeting concludes by selecting the least-bad idea that is most risk-free. Or worse, the group leaves with less, not more, clarity and excitement for the project.
We don’t have to live this way.
The research says what we already know: group brainstorming is often ineffective
In their book Sprint, authors Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz mention a 1958 study at Yale that pitted individual brainstorming against group brainstorming. The individuals dominated – which was confirmed by additional research.
Just where do good ideas come from? According to this study, even the presence of a mobile device reduces cognitive capacity – including when the device is switched off and within reach. So, no help from the smartphone.
The conventional wisdom is that quantity leads to quality, but it does require a facilitator to hold space and guide the process.
Getting good at brainstorming
There is a lot that can be said about brainstorming, ideating, and guiding processes of diverging, and converging. It’s out of the scope of what I have to say in this article (though fully within scope of the mission of Popup Think Tank!), but I highly recommend Gamestorming, a playbook for innovators and creators. And if you have five days, we HIGHLY recommend the Google Ventures Design Sprint.
Of course, there are many ways to improve how we facilitate and participate in brainstorming sessions. However, recently we’ve been asking a different question: What power does brainstorming have beyond the generation of new ideas?
What if the purpose of brainstorming is not about ideas?
The underlying assumption of this narrative, however, is that the primary purpose of brainstorming is the generation of ideas, and we measure the effectiveness of a brainstorming session by the number of innovative and actionable ideas. What if the true power of brainstorming is less about the ideas and more about the people in the room? What if good ideas are simply a byproduct of community, purpose, and empathy? What happens when we make brainstorming about the people and not the ideas?
There are three overlooked benefits of group brainstorming
Beyond “getting new ideas,” we believe there are three primary benefits and outcomes of brainstorming.
#1 The Power to Create Empathy
Brainstorming has the power to produce empathy.
Imagine a scenario. Your close friend comes to you to ask for help. She is at a crossroads moment in life. Her employer of five years, a creative agency, will be absorbed into a larger firm. Based on her experience and education, she is a great candidate for a promotion, but most likely in another company. Though, the merger may bring some opportunities. At the same time, she’s nurturing a passion on the side: working with at-risk youth through a non-profit that offers affordable music lessons. She loves it, though not in the “career” kind of way (interestingly, her formal training and education is in music performance). Last year she started seeing a guy whose work is based overseas – and it’s going really, really well. Quite well. And he’s dropping hints about moving to live in the same city. All of this is enough reason to ask for help and perspective, but last week you learned that her dad went to the doctor recently and they are running some more tests. Her dad says it’s no big deal, but her mom, who is a healthcare professional, isn’t so confident. Many things are converging in her life at once.
Imagine, then, that your friend takes you to coffee and says, “What would you do if you were me? Brainstorm with me. No idea is a bad idea.”
This is a brainstorming session. But what makes this feel different is that it starts and ends with empathy. There are times when we need to brainstorm for our own challenges, but empathy invites us to consider the challenge from the point of view of someone else. In my experience, people jump on the opportunity to brainstorm ideas on behalf of someone they care about – and the final product is often much, much better.
When someone is both facing a problem and open to new ideas, feedback, and perspective, we have the necessary ingredients to genuinely empower someone with fresh perspective. All that is needed is a fellow brainstormer with empathy. We don’t need silly rules in this case, such as “no idea is a bad idea.” (If you tell her to “move to Germany and become a mascot for a high school soccer team” as a solution to her dilemma, you’re clearly not understanding her problem.)
We choose to engage the problem from the standpoint of the person who holds the burden, brainstorming creates empathy, particularly when brainstorming is on behalf of others in an act of generosity and service.
#2 The Power to Discover Community
Brainstorming brings people together.
They say, ‘no idea is a bad idea’ - but someone needs to test the rule. If someone is truly willing to say something risky, to utter words that push the limits of the group culture, to push up against the boundaries, it feels vulnerable. And the vulnerability to just say it never goes unnoticed. It’s powerful. It creates a space that the group can step into, giving permission to others to also push the envelope.
Brainstorming is not vulnerable until it is. That permission we need to say the thing we need to say can be created by someone who is willing to go first. And it creates possibilities. Where there is no vulnerability, there is no community. Community isn’t created, it’s discovered. It’s when we say, “I, too, can push the unspoken boundaries and share.”
When a group of people brainstorming have someone who is willing to push boundaries, say something out of the norm, it’s a gift to the group because it increases vulnerability, promotes healthy risk taking, and celebrates individuality, which increases a sense of community. Brainstorming has the power to build community.
#3 The Power to Build Missional Engagement
Have you ever brainstormed new ideas for a non-profit initiator or small business leader? Truly, It’s a transformative experience.
Hearing the stories of non-profit founders – whose hearts are aching for their mission to bring healing to communities and to solve the most pressing issues – can be transformative.
When we sit and learn from those who are running addiction recovery centers, eliminating sex trafficking, providing youth employment, and working on behalf of those experiencing homelessness, it helps us see the divine and sacred work in the world around us.
When we enter into a creative space with those brave individuals who are tackling the worse evils of the world while simultaneously proving a new hope is right here and active at work in our midst, well, that is powerful.
For instance, earlier this year we pulled together a group of people to brainstorm for a non-profit coffee company and roaster that specializes in employment training for youth experiencing homelessness. (Amen, right?) Yes, hundreds of ideas were generated, and it’s up to the leaders to decide which of those ideas fit in their strategy and capacity. But the true win of the event was that 75% of the people in attendance said they were very likely or likely to get involved with the organization after the event.
That’s the power of brainstorming.
When we ask people for advice, wisdom, best practices, and ideas, we’re asking for more than their words and thoughts. We’re asking for a micro-investment of emotional energy. That’s not nothing.
We see it over and over – by asking people to brainstorm, we see them building ownership. And it’s authentically become a way to discern if and how one wants to be further involved with that mission.
See It In Action
So, we’re curious. What do you think? What ideas do you have about brainstorming? Where and how do you experience effective brainstorming?
Starting a non-profit? Share your dream.
Want to get trained to facilitate brainstorming sessions for non-profit founders? Become a member facilitator.
Want to experience the power of brainstorming based on empathy, community, and engagement? Attend events.
Tim Schuster is Founder of Popup Think Tank where they build communities around non-profit founders and small business entrepreneurs. He also works with Thrivent Financial where he and his teammates design, test, and launch social businesses. He lives in North Minneapolis with his family.
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