When we are fazed with a problem demanding a creative solution, we often call for ‘brainstorming’ sessions to thrash it out. But many of us sometimes find these sessions ineffective at best, painful at worst. This piece in the Bartleby column identifies inherent conflicts in such exercises which require a balanced approach to make them effective. The piece notes three such sources of tension:
“One tension is between creativity and feasibility. A brainstorm is meant to be freeing, a chance to ask out-of-the-box questions (like, “Wouldn’t it be great if people had prosthetic tails?”). But it is also meant to produce suggestions that can actually be translated into reality, which calls for a more pragmatic style of thinking (like, “What are you talking about? We work at a salad chain.”).
Research carried out in 2017 found that different types of ideas emerge at different stages of a brainstorm. The most feasible suggestions were generated at the start of brainstorming sessions, presumably because they were also more obvious, and the most original ones came later. Both types risk producing a “what’s the point?” reaction from participants: incrementalism is unexciting, wild schemes are not going anywhere.
A second tension is between managers and non-managers. By its nature brainstorming is insiderish. Someone has to arrange the session, and that person is often the manager of a team. If decision-makers are not in the room, then the suspicion will grow that time is being wasted. If they are, then hierarchies easily assert themselves: good ideas can wither with a frown from the boss, and bad ones can survive with a nod.
A third balance to strike is between different personalities and different styles of thinking. A new paper from researchers at Columbia Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business finds that brainstorming on Zoom comes at a cost to creativity: as people’s visual focus narrows on the screen in front of them, their cognitive range also seems to become more limited. But if in-person gatherings are better, they also do not work equally well for everyone. Some personalities are immediately comfortable saying what they think; others need to be coaxed to share their opinions.”
Whilst we can’t wish away these tensions, the piece ends with some simple rules that can help:
“Define the parameters of a brainstorming session upfront. Try to make a specific thing work better rather than to shoot for the Moon. Involve people you don’t know, as well as those you do. Start by getting people to write their ideas down in silence, so extroverts and bosses have less chance to dominate. And be clear about the next steps after the session is over; the attraction of holding a “design sprint”, a week-long, clear-the-diary way for a team to develop and test product prototypes, is that the thread connecting ideas to outcomes is taut. All of which would make brainstorming a little more thought-provoking and a tad less heart-sinking.”

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