A Critique of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a minimally structured group process for collectively generating ideas on a given theme, question, challenge or problem.

One of the most patronising and patently silly assumptions of brainstorming is that, in the space of five minutes, you can harvest the contents of someone’s head, like a field of wheat.

Even where this might be possible, in most organisations which are collusions of mediocrity, avoiding real challenge and criticism in favour of comfort and safety, the wheat yields poor flour, tasteless bread devoid of vitamins, genetically standardised and modified, conservative poop.

It’s only redeeming features are that, on the flip chart, it all looks the same and there is a vast quantity of it..

For brainstorming to be fruitful, a gorgeously creative atmosphere must be present in the room. Brainstorming requires a mood for improvisation and improvisation requires an appetite for, and readiness to flow. When we truly bounce off each other, ideas can develop. And bouncing off each other isn’t storming of any kind. Bouncing off each other means being inspired by each other – my half formed thought triggers are radical and wonderful reaction in you in the form of a better idea that wouldn’t have come about with your trigger. But this creativity doesn’t necessarily have to be positive at first.

Perhaps some brainstorms arise from a sense of urgency, a wish to reduce or eliminate personal or organisational pain, of angst or frustration.

Ideas then burst onto the scene from the bubbling hot mud of fear and disappointment.

When we create ideas together in a really unchained flow, we aren’t brainstorming. We are simply improvising – inventing together in a flow of associate ideas, thoughts, feelings, impulses and reactions. Brainstorming sells that process cheap. I’ve seen it work, but it really takes off when people stop doing it and just flow. The rather mechanical process of sitting in a circle and sequentially speaking our words and phrases is simply another structured process that gets in the way of flow.

Brainstorming nearly always exists, not for the process, nor even the outcome, but for the facilitator or the meeting leader. The need for an output overwhelms the quality and flow of the input. The process is put to the service of a kind of unhealthy neediness to get ideas. Ideas flow better when we flow like a river, not like a storm. A bubbling steam is better, unpredictable, a bit chaotic, a direction here, a direction there, a plunge, a splash then a silent pool. The name brainstorming has a Frankenstein feel, a sense that our ideas are stuffed inside us and a big storm is needed to get them out.

Nonsense. Occasionally the dam may need to burst, but it is still flow of ideas that we need, not the deluge of a storm.

Brainstorming puts a lot of people in a circle under pressure. It can work very well, but often what people express are outcomes of their inner nervousness, and then we end up with mediocre ideas, and the radical ones are politely giggled at and labelled as the crazy ones. That is where i recommend Involutionary Brainstorming, if you must brainstorm at all. Don’t call it conversation if you can get away with it. Look for ideas from a group that is already in a good flow state. Then just sit them down and invite ideas around an identified question or theme. Write those ideas up r use another way of collecting them. Leave the process and then come back to it. Have the idea collection process running on the side throughout the day. Collect ideas as they come up, at any time. And, most of all, invite people to be radical and give an audience to the craziest sounding ideas of all. Don’t assume that brainstorming is your one bit of mad creativity for the day. It isn’t. A lot of people these days groan when it is mentioned. Yes, brainstorming has become a “groaner.  for many people. It can work, and can still be a mind-blower for those not used to that way of collaborating. But, for most people, it is an awkward, facilitator-heavy way of sharing ideas.

Freeform brainstorming produces the best ideas usually. Here we don’t have too structured a sequential process and anyone can hurl an idea into the room at any time, until we all run out.


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