The brainstorm - a trojan horse of mediocrity


Image courtesy of Jacob Botter

I hate brainstorms.

I hate running them, I hate contributing to them and I hate using them to solve problems.

They waste huge amounts of time and talent and they are no fucking good at delivering decent ideas.

And so six months ago I cleansed my professional life of this trojan horse of mediocrity, favouring aggregated individual working or two person thinking sessions.

I suggest it's time you gave them the boot too.

Death the the brainstorm. Long live great ideas.

The idea of the brainstorm was developed in the 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborne, the O in BBDO (which he founded in 1919 with his mates Batten, Barton and Durstine) and popularised in a book he wrote on the subject called Applied Imagination.

Osborne believed that when creating ideas quantity breeds quality - that if you can generate enough ideas somewhere in all the swill will be gold dust.

And so that's what he built his brainstorming technique to do - deliver quantity over quality. Kind of like a Starbucks for creative thinking, you know once in a while they make a decent cup of coffee. Brainstormers are supposed to focus on quantity, not criticise other people's ideas, be as 'wild' as they want and to combine and improve existing ideas.

These rules are so pervasive in contemporary business that even the cretins on The Apprentice seem to have learned them. And it is these rules that are at the heart of the ghastliness of the brainstorm experience . An experience in which too many people, with little ultimate responsibility for the quality of the outcome whitter on for far too long to the increasing frustration of the problem owner. Frustration manifestly worsened by the cult of facilitation.

A facilitators main task is to ensure that 'everyone goes home with a balloon' after a brainstorm - that they all feel that their pointless lives have been made somehow better by this semi cathartic experience and by the lovely little warm up games that they all played. Not to mention that they all got to vote on the most simplistic and incompetent ideas with a little stash of post it notes like some kind of mutant pin the tail on the donkey game. Facilitators like pariticipants to have a nice time more than they like delivering actionable output.

But the thing that really pisses me off about this whole technique is that it brings an unwelcome democracy into the process of idea generation. Democracy is great as a way of ensuring that the will of the people is brought to bear in governing of their lives. But it pretty much ensures that blandness is the output we most readily associate with the brainstorm. In particular democracy leads to production blocking which is the loss of great ideas while people are waiting for their turn or having to listen to the irrelevant ramblings of other participants. And if that were not bad enough it ensures that the more polarising and interesting ideas are lost at the evaluation stage as everyone showers the flip chart with their 'stickies' endorsing the familiar and feasible.

And there is no evidence they actually work beyond increasing morale, team building and other such airy fairy shenanigans. Productivity loss in an inherent part of the brainstorm approach (Mullen, Johnson and Salas, 1991; Diehl and Strobe, 1987) which results from evaluation apprehension, social loafing and the production blocking I mentioned above. Much of this research shows that brainstorms are infact less effective than individuals working independently.

for my money the optimum number of people for an idea generation session is two with no facilitator hanging on. Two people that have a vested interest in the quality of the outcome and can switch seemlessly between divergent and convergent thinking until they get to the right idea which they both then build upon.

It is one of the reasons that Bernbach was a genius in putting art directors and copywriters together and a reason that startegists should also be paired, or paired with individual creatives.

And if you need any more convincing that brainstorms (and their euphomistic offspring like 'thought showers') are shit think about how easy it was to get people into the room last time you ran one. The only endvour people want to be involved in less is a four hour powerpoint presentation on the new phone system and they will make up the most outlandish excuses not to spend 3 hours in an overheated room with some idiot prancing around infront of a Nobo board for no apparant reason.

Sure have a brainstorm if you want to do a bit of team building and you don't really care about the outcome.

If not pledge today that you will have nothing to do with the bastard offspring of the advertising industry. Refuse to run them, refuse to contribute to them and never ever find yourself voting on lacklustre ideas with post it notes again.


"Osborne believed that when creating ideas quantity breeds quality - that if you can generate enough ideas somewhere in all the swill will be gold dust.

And so that's what he built his brainstorming technique to do - deliver quantity over quality. Kind of like a Starbucks for creative thinking"

Lovely line. What are your thoughts about two planners working together, bouncing ideas off each other on the same account?

Posted by: Will at May 23, 2007 02:25 PM

Agree completely - the idea touted in brianstorms and other such events that no idea is a bad idea is patent bollocks. It bans constructive and creative criticism without doing anything else for quality.

Posted by: John Dodds at May 23, 2007 03:29 PM

Very true. Brainstorms are such a waste of time. I find conversations in an agency useful, whereas brainstorms just feel like the most false form of conversation ever.

Posted by: Gareth at May 23, 2007 03:42 PM

Amen to that.

The brainstorm mantra that "every idea is a good idea" makes me want to puke every time I hear it. Some ideas are self-evident crap and should be strangled as soon as they emerge.

Democracy? Bah, humbug. Give me ruthless Darwinism any time. May the fittest idea survive.

Posted by: Grumpy at May 23, 2007 03:49 PM

If anyone needs proof that not all ideas are good ones, I've got a MILLION and that's literally not an exaggeration.

Posted by: Mrs Belmot at May 23, 2007 04:16 PM

We Staufenbergers have been working as a team of two for the last couple of years. It works really well for us.

Mind you, some would say that's because each of us has half a brain.

Posted by: Patrick at May 23, 2007 05:05 PM

Hear hear!

I was just having this rant with an account team/client bumwiper this morning, fantastic timing.

I also hate that because brainstorms are so unproductive people have spiced them up with performing arts...

I recently had the joy of building a 'brand fantasy palace with a childrens entertainer'... it was no joke

Posted by: jemster at May 23, 2007 06:00 PM

You have no idea how timely this post is for me. It's really made me grin.

Also, just today I was just talking to Will about the magic of an effective partnership.

Posted by: Helen at May 23, 2007 06:14 PM

Yes yes yes!

I have to say that in all my time in the industry I have never been in a brainstorm that has generated an idea that has even gone on to be made. Ever (let alone a good one). And unfortunately that is not a reflection on the amount of time I've wasted in them.

Posted by: Ric Nicholls at May 23, 2007 06:23 PM

Richard - Your post, as usual, made me smile, think hard about my own behaviour at work and laugh out loud.

I like the observation that often a brainstorming is little more than a team building exercise with multi-coloured post-it notes and chocolate hob-nobs.

For me though, when I really want to try and solve a hard problem and generate ideas I do need other people to work with. I've been thinking a lot about the pairings of a planner with a creative, I think that could be a way to go. Do we still need CW and AD creative teams - maybe it should be Planner + Creative in the future?

But as an aside, for me when it comes to generating smart new ideas I am not sure if two is the right number. Especially with digital ideas, I try to make sure that we have smart producers or more techy geek-y folks, together with myself and creatives. If there can ever be an optimal number for me it's 3-4 and never with post-it notes...

Posted by: Amelia Torode at May 23, 2007 07:13 PM


Posted by: Adrian Lai at May 23, 2007 09:08 PM

Here's a big YES from a young creative, well written article I agree with completely.

Posted by: Waldemar at May 23, 2007 11:24 PM

Here Here!

I used to work at the BBC in a 'development team' for new program ideas. I spent half my working hours sitting on a felt covered cube and staring at a flip chart, while a random assortment of inarticulate half-wits babbled around any given topic.

The Beeb employs a small army of 'facilitators', trained ninja-style in the art of writing things in coloured pen, making people wear imaginary coloured hats, getting people to think backwards/sideways and in spirals...and in generally transforming anything with any potential interest into a bland husk of nothingness.

Hence the entire BBC ONE schedule.


Posted by: Jonathan at May 24, 2007 12:30 AM

No. Do not agree. Bollocks.

You've either been doing them wrong, can't do them or you've been sat in a room with the wrong people.

And I'm quite happy to argue the toss with you untill kingdom come.

I may even tell you why....when I've calmed down.

Posted by: Marcus at May 24, 2007 07:42 AM

No ... I don't agree either.

Infact what you are saying seems to imply you and your friends believe you are oh-so-much cleverer than everyone else ... and while [1] I know you are not saying that and [2] you probably are ... to act like no one else is worthy of contributing to ideas unless they've passed the 'clever exam' [whatever that is] is complete and utter bollocks.

I like and respect you a hell of a lot Richard, but this is wrong ... and I don't need a brainstorm meeting to come to that conclusion.

Posted by: Rob @ Cynic at May 24, 2007 07:54 AM

Great post Richard

We in the village of Wye in rural Kent are starting work on producing a Village Plan which will hopefully articulate the views and wishes from the members of the 1,100 housholds in the parish. Your post is very timely, all sorts of brainstormy approaches are being canvased,your derision of the process has woderfully clarified my thoughts on what not to do as we garner residents needs and wishes for the future. Innovation in community building is what is needed, certainly not blandness.

For us senior Huntingtons, I am constantly excited by the innovative thinking which emerges when the two partners in 'Lucy Huntington Garden Design' develop new ideas around the 'boardroom table'.

By contrast, being closited in a room with a diverse group of residents or local business people, trying to be really creative about the future of our village, is very very hard work. In fact Mrs H refuses to come to such gatherings. One of the initatives being touted this week is to hire a facilitator - I have been warned! We have been submitted to the postit note experience already, needless to say no plan of cation emerged.

Posted by: Francis H at May 24, 2007 08:10 AM

I was surprised that Richard's post was challenged. However I couldn't work out what the challenge was .... something about not having enough clever people in the room which is not exactly an argument. If you can get over Richard's angry tone and listen to what he is saying you will realise that he is making some pretty sharp points: 1. The selection process of the ideas is based on some form of post it note democracy and you can't get original ideas based on the least common denominator of the feasible and feeble. I was in a meeting with Steve Henry once and he said 'I don't know how on earth we are going to do it but that is what we should do' now how can you let something like that happen in a room full of people and a big white elephant called: somebody is going to make this happen and it better not be me. 2. There is only one real 'problem owner' in the room and frankly no one ever really thinks about something unless its 'my problem'. If you run anything to do with solving problems or coming up with ideas it should be done with the one or two people who's mortgage depends on it. 3. Original ideas are hardly born like that APG logo with a big flash bulb I always had trouble with that, they are more like a candle in the wind you have to cup your palms around it in order to make sure it stays alive, you only need a maximum of four hands for that. 4. The coupling of creatives with planners and in digital techies too is not just a nice idea it is critical. I am in the process of dismantling my planning dept & creative dept by having quods of planner + art + copy + tech. Anymore than that and it becomes and it becomes an unhappy brainstorm. Besides the very term brainstorm is ridiculous, its something that people afflicted with epilepsy have its a medical condition that needs treatment and Richard is your doctor.

Posted by: speed at May 24, 2007 08:27 AM

Now let this serve as a warning to all those who think of blogging when you're over the alcohol limit.

Posted by: Hari at May 24, 2007 08:30 AM

Hey Speed ... you should live in China ... you'll love being told what to do by someone who has decided they know what is right, without consulting a wider body of people.

Posted by: Rob @ Cynic at May 24, 2007 08:38 AM

Richard, if the majority of the comments on this post are anything to go by, then it’s hardly surprising you have experienced anything but failure with brainstorming and I now understand why YOU think it worthless exercise.

How trying it must be stuck in a room of people who simply agree with everything you say. How one sided and dull. How pointless. Much easier to sit down, on your own and have an argument with yourself. Probably more productive.

Which, when you think about it, shines a pretty poor light on the UK ad industry.

Posted by: Marcus at May 24, 2007 08:55 AM

The limited number of brainstorms I have participated in during my career have been well, frankly... a bit like The Office.

Large, overly rambling, and poorly moderated, where people are encouraged to stick their oar in, however divisive and poorly understood their point is.

I'd be fully prepared to slate groups, if not for a few brainstorms I have sat in.

These were rare jewels, I must admit. Well moderated, small(ish) - about 4/5 people, and there was a clear objective outlined. The moderator stepped it when it got off topic, rather than running at random tangents with anything that was said - which is, I find, often the problem.

An idea isn't 'good', just because it was expressed. People are too worried about treading on people's toes sometimes - if you think it's off topic, say so (just be prepared to back it up).

Ahem. So basically - brainstorms (if small, on topic, and crucially - WELL MODERATED) can be useful.

But oh so many aren't.

Posted by: Will at May 24, 2007 09:17 AM

Only a few planners are actually any good, most are just data analysts pretending to see 'insights' from numbers... so therefore using your theory... planning is a useless discipline, because if it's not practised properly it just produces more obstacles than catalysts. Then again going by most comments on this blog maybe that is true.

Posted by: Hari at May 24, 2007 09:39 AM

Is it not about finding the right balance between individual egotism ("I know what is right") and group blandness ("We have decided that...")?

I imagine a lot of brainstorms are useless. But with a good person taking charge, and with proper constructive critique of the ideas surely they must work sometimes.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at May 24, 2007 10:02 AM

Brainstorm can work - it's just incredibly easy to do them badly. I've also noticed that they tend to decay once a pattern has been set. The low-point is where they seem to run on auto-pilot and turn into an extended boring briefing. I've tried to combat this is by continually refreshing the idea generation process. The IDEO method cards have been a great inspiration for this approach, which seems to work better tyha a single process. It's worth reading 'The Ten Faces of Innovation' if you're thinking about improving broken brainstorms. This has some great thoughts about the mix of people and the strategic approach to improving creativity.

Posted by: hobart65 at May 24, 2007 10:15 AM

Totally agree with Marcus and by "well moderated" this shouldn't just mean steering the group in the right direction and keeping them focused on the task in hand, it critically means encouraging different techniques for idea generation.

Even things as wanky as related world techniques or the dreaded role play can take the group (small but perfectly formed) into areas of thought they might not necessarily have gone down. Can also be more fun. So basically you've got to check the technique.

Posted by: Greg at May 24, 2007 10:18 AM

brainstorming = structured conversations. you seems to be arguing on two different counts. dont rubbish what it it, rubbish what advertising has done to it - post it notes and powerdots have got in the way of conversations.

get a bunch of bright people in a room and you can generate something powerful. creative + planner? no. it should be more like, creative, planner, tech, media. even better if is not in a room.

isnt this much of what blogging is all about...

darwin was all for wrong turns, bad ideas and building to get to the right answer.

Posted by: giles rhys jones at May 24, 2007 10:22 AM

I don't like crowded brainstorms as well. But in a small group it's a nice tool. And if used right the brainstorm should broaden the thinking of all members and there should be a wide variety of basic ideas.
But all have to be in complete agreement that the ideas and thinking generated from a brainstorm have to be focussed and devised. It's only the start of work. And can maybe be used to come together and talk about elaborated ideas and then work on them again.
Only bloody fools think they can get brilliant and complete ideas out of a brainstorm.

Posted by: Seb at May 24, 2007 10:41 AM

If you rely on a brainstorm to come up with a complete and rounded idea...then its always going to fail.

But for a small group of selected knowledgable people to filter out the chaff and get some starting points, I dont see why it shouldnt be effective.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at May 24, 2007 10:46 AM

Richard, you’re spot on about Starbucks, but I must completely disagree with you on your view on brainstorms. The kind you’re describing here that is.

You write that: “Brainstormers are supposed to focus on quantity, not criticise other people's ideas, be as 'wild' as they want and to combine and improve existing ideas”.

As far as the idea-generation (quantity) part of the process goes, I would agree with what you’re saying. But maybe Osborne ran out of ink just when he came to the essential quality-component of the process in his book; the part where the bad ideas generated are falsified and justly deemed shite; the part where the facilitator exercises his/her judgment and persuasive skills, steps carefully on a few client toes and makes some critical calls.

If the facilitator’s objective is to keep everyone happy and make sure everyone walks away with a balloon at the end of it, as implied, disastrous results are inevitable. (And from a client’s perspective, it’s more economical to hire a Moriarty band for the entertainment and source the balloons directly from supplier rather than going through an ad agency, which will invariably take a cut.)

Posted by: fredrik sarnblad at May 24, 2007 10:55 AM

As a mercifully ex-facilitator I can only agree rabidly.

There are two extra tweaks which take a brainstorm beyond the merely useless and into the realms of the positively dangerous.

1. The oft-repeated notion that 'there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm'. There are, hundreds of them and palpably shite.

2. The vacuously happy-clappy idea that 'anyone could come up with the ground breaking idea we're looking for.

Which is why the facilitator's nightmare is watching the client MD getting increasingly testy while the intern hold the floor with some piece of trite derivative tosh.

Though you won't hear many facilitators admit it, brainstorms are to idea generation what 'Any Answers?' is to 'Any Questions?'.

Sorry... did that come across as too 'Black Hat'?

Posted by: Tim Hayward at May 24, 2007 11:22 AM

Cripes - another hornets' nest cracked open with the righteous sword of blogging.

This reminds me of an old Fry and Laurie sketch about cigarettes, with Steven Fry playing the 'Doctor' questioning Hugh Laurie's accepted view that smoking is bad for you:

HL: But too much smoking's bad for you...
SF: Of course 'too much' smoking's bad for you! Drinking 'too much' water is bad for you! That's what 'too much' means - that's why it's 'too much'!

Point being: it's so obvious to say that a bad (or badly moderated) brainstorm is a bad thing that it comes across as slightly facetious - that's what 'bad' means. But to suggest off the back of that that brainstorms are a bad thing in and of themselves seems equally fatuous.

Well moderated brainstorms can be a joy, and the gems of great ideas can come out of them - fuck it, even hearing someone saying something stupid can spark something brilliant.

I don't really see how you can deny that...

Posted by: Dan at May 24, 2007 01:18 PM

Ah - found the link.

"Of course it is, you blithering twat..."

Wonderful stuff.

Posted by: Dan at May 24, 2007 01:27 PM

brainstorm overload is the main reason why common sense is in such short supply

Posted by: jemster at May 24, 2007 01:35 PM

I seem to be entering this fight far too late.

On the issue of "what's the right number of people in order to be creatively productive" i have been pondering this recently (as part of the legendary virtual opus "The Mathematics of Creativity")

Based on an awful lot of collaborative working, encountering some seriously brilliant individuals and studying academic stuff on this my answer is "4 or less, depending". The typical number of people at a brainstorm is normally a lot more than this so yes, typically they stink.

So when asked to run "brainstorms" I always split the groups down into units of 3 or 4 as part of the overall process (having said that you can then encounter the equally naff term "break out sessions").

I know it maybe a re-branding job (like Windscale to Sellafield to Glowing Sands Bay?) but in my neck of the woods these things are called "Facilitated Sessions" or "Brand Workshops".

The name of the game is to make sure what you gain from the inclusivess you don't lose in it getting too consensual (and hence mediocre)

Which - much as I hate "brainstorms" - I still like about running workshops.

Having said that, I have never seen a breakthrough idea come out of a brainstorm. Good ones, yes. Brilliant, no.

Posted by: jon leach at May 24, 2007 01:45 PM

Idea generation or brainstorming is a bit like sex.

Onanism can suffice for a well crafted and finely tuned output. But you can't beat an orgy for a full on 'my-mammy-never-taught-me-that' kind of experience.

Anyway I thought collaboration was a key HHCL value. Not that I'm accusing you of being a wanker or anything ;)

Posted by: Charles Frith at May 24, 2007 02:04 PM

Dan - That sketch is brilliant, I remember it well!

"Having said that, I have never seen a breakthrough idea come out of a brainstorm. Good ones, yes. Brilliant, no."

But isnt that the point? Brainstorming isnt coming up with an end finished idea, its about creating the ideas that spark the ideas. A bit like pushing the first domino to start the run that gets to the big trick at the end?

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at May 24, 2007 02:22 PM

It's the rush of morning after self-loathing that makes me cringe at the thought of orgies and brainstorms.

For all their strap-on (or whatever) and post-it note fun, both seem faintly ridiculous in the cold light of day.

Call me old fashioned, but there is a middle ground between self-abuse and a gangbang.

Posted by: Grumpy at May 24, 2007 02:24 PM

Weirdly, we use Brainstorms (or what ever their called this week) to present work, never to generate it.

Brainstorms, as the comfy sofa of creativity, often allow clients to get all relaxed and open to going 'all the way.'

As Mr Leach said, they were a core HHCL thang, however they were used with greatest skill in the Derren Brown Mind Trick of the 'Tissue Meeting'. Making the client believe they were genuinely involved in the shin-dig of creativity.

Look into my eyes...

We all know great ideas come from visionaries, not 10 bleating voices.

Yo only have to look at the great stuff out there at the moment and I'll bet it's come from single big idea that then became beutifully made... to coin a phrase.

Posted by: Simon Manchipp at May 24, 2007 02:58 PM

It is done at the wrong time. What you should do is brainstorm the definition of the problem, not the solution.

And they *are* too damn democratic. I am rather fond of a Rupert Murdoch quote: "Teamworking involves a group of twelve people all doing what I say."

Posted by: Rory Sutherland at May 24, 2007 03:04 PM

Brainstorms should be conducted like the silent disco at festivals (you know the one where everyone has headphones and dances to their own tune?) Give each participant a different question; ask them to sit down quietly for an hour and answer it (the moderator can go for lunch at this point); get them to read out their answers and comment on each others work. Say thanks.

Posted by: Phil Teer at May 24, 2007 06:08 PM

adliterate post & marmite, separated at birth?

Posted by: giles rhys jones at May 24, 2007 09:13 PM

think that stopped in the 1990's Phil

Posted by: jemster at May 24, 2007 10:00 PM

so did my clubbing, jemster

Posted by: Phil Teer at May 25, 2007 11:03 AM

Is this an example of blogging killing brainstorming?

Posted by: Ben at May 25, 2007 02:01 PM

I agree with the posting by Hobart - if you bring the right insights into the room, and split up into small groups of 2 or 3 to work together - brainstorming sessions can be extremely useful.

Bad brainstormings are about lazy facilitators walking into the room with a question and a blank flipchart. Then they accept thoughts, desires and musings as ideas - and write absolutely everything that everyone says. If you don't think it's valuable - it's because you've not done your preparation.

Be demanding! Make people land there ideas, make them real and find the interesting bit of other people's ideas and you'll get much more out at the end of the day.

Posted by: Shelli @ ?What If! at May 25, 2007 03:02 PM

Formal brainstorm sessions are good for generating group ownership/acknowledgment into a problem affecting a business. More often than not, this is far more valuable than coming out with an actual idea, because as a result of this unified acceptance between agency/client and anyone else involve, budgets for further rsearch/creative development etc are signed off.

So, the airy fairy shenanigans you talk about are as important as unearthing that big idea. And that's not to say you don't uncover these gems. In my experience, I have developed as many succesful ideas through brainstorms as in isolation.

But then, this is a bit like dinner parties. When the host can't be bothered there is nothing more soul destroying, torturous and agonising than contributing to a conversation you couldn't give a shit about.

And Richard, either you're not a great host or your're inviting the wrong people.

A bad workman always blames his tools.

Posted by: mm at May 25, 2007 06:54 PM

There is a bit of a problem of definition here.

4 or less well briefed and intelligent people sitting in a room and batting an idea about for a bit is how great ideas have always been evolved. Look at the great Hollywood writing teams. But I don't call that a brainstorm.

Brainstorms went adrift when they became performance pieces sold as product to clients. The idea that any one who can speak, chew gum and follow three rules about respecting the ideas of others is somehow a positive addition to the mix is a ridiculous bit of feel-good bollocks.

In years of facilitation, though, I can safely say that the huge majority of set-piece brainstorms with client present were nothing to do with 'generating' ideas. They were everything to do with improving team buy in, making staff feel wanted or making shareholders feel that they were 'doing something to harness the innovation inherent in the organisation'. The best clients are honest about this in the brief.

As a political, PR and general staff massaging tool, brainstorms are second to none. As a place to have ideas they are a Mongolian clusterfuck.

Posted by: Tim Hayward at May 26, 2007 09:01 AM

Good provocative stuff as per, Rich. Interesting that nobody went back to the origins of the brainstorm - an open-ended, purposeless think-in of selected and qualified individuals. The version we know better (as so many posts suggest) is a highly pasteurised and PC vanilla version of what was by all accounts something pretty disruptive.

Perhaps the other reason why so few good brainstorm experiences are revealed here:

Posted by: mark Earls at May 26, 2007 10:40 AM

As I said earlier, this is really timely for me. Last week saw a number of brainstorm-related disappointments and frustrations. Mostly due to tired and lazy approaches and a lack of honesty about what was going on in the room.

I still think there's value in them though, in the understanding that brainstorming = time and space for people to focus on an issue in new and different ways.

Posted by: Helen at May 26, 2007 07:09 PM

A lot of brainstorming sessions are indeed crap. However, I've been to, and facilitated, many that were highly productive. They can work if the culture supports ideation, if players play by the rules of brainstorming, and if there are creative tools and techniques used in the session. This would include silent work, paired work, small groups, dialogue, improv games, and many more.

I do believe in the "no idea is bad" concept -- not because some ideas aren't pure nonsense, but because stopping to critique it or strangle it interupts the flow of ideation. Brainstorming done well is a flow experience and getting out of flow is why many sessions fail.

Posted by: Gregg Fraley at May 27, 2007 04:39 PM

I'd venture the worst thing about brainstorms is the word 'ideation'. But that's probably just me.

Posted by: Dan at May 28, 2007 05:49 PM

agree with Shelli, Mark and Gregg - it's how you do them, isn't it, and when you do them (and when not to)?

it's become a cheap, overused tool and term

and who is going back to basics, what are they for?

and by the way, where's Richard?

Posted by: kevin at May 28, 2007 11:38 PM

"They waste huge amounts of time and talent and they are no fucking good at delivering decent ideas."

Applies equally well to ad agencies

Posted by: Sir Winston O'Boogie at May 29, 2007 09:41 AM

There's a pretty good book called The Difference by Scott Page. It looks at the way we think in groups and argues convincingly that these days it is the collective efforts of diverse individuals which really move things forward rather than one giant Einsteinian figure. The key word is diversity - bringing together experts with different backgrounds, skill sets and knowledge.

Perhap brainstorms would be more effective if they included a TV writer, a neurosurgeon, an aeronautical engineer and an anthropoloogist or whatever. Real experts, contributing real ideas and learning from each others experience. In that environment, it would be very helpful to believe that no idea is a bad idea because the quality benchmark would be much higher than it is when an assorted group of largely white, middle class agency types from West Hampstead come together at a moments notice to discuss something they know little about, like flavour variants for a soft drink.

Posted by: Phil Teer at May 29, 2007 11:41 AM

Yeah, lets all get carried away and dump the old brainstorming sessions, i mean, you can't say that nothing good has come out of them!
Its hard to get them right, as you need suitable people, environment, a number of people would rather go for the easy option and do the thinking amongst two. Don't agree with that, brainstorms with a well picked variety of people and with the correct mood can bring so much more out of the meeting then a two man job.

Posted by: Martin at May 29, 2007 11:54 AM

only on one occasion - of the hundreds that i've been in - has an idea out of a brainstorm ever been realised. and it was any good. which is probably one more than most people.

Posted by: sidekick at May 29, 2007 01:10 PM

Brainstorms run by people with limited knowledge of how to harness people's innate creativity are pretty much guaranteed to fail - no quibble there.

They are great for something such as establishing creative territories - or as Rory says defining the business problem - but lousy perhaps for executions. Shit in - shit out - its all about the moderator to a certain degree.

Ideo on the other hand have made a rather large amount of money out of creating about 90 design ideas a year using the collective power of the individuals in their company. They don't call it brainstorming they call it a 'deep dive' where the people chosen to participate have something specific to contribute. Most things we use today such as toothbrushes with squidgy handles, 1000's of the most successful children's toys, even microwaves were created as a result of brainstorming in one shape or another.

Which begs a rather interesting thought about how to use them. They can be good for isolating those ideas that have the best opportunity to propagate themselves from those that are merely average - as 'The Chief Juicer' himself John Kearon often argues that the wisdom of crowds is better than the brilliance of the individual. He can statisically prove it too. But, as mentioned before they can't neccessarily create those ideas first.

I too rather dislike the agreement here - what's the point of that exactly? Probably its the same people that sit there and have lousy group sessions with their peers.

Posted by: Holycow at May 29, 2007 01:31 PM

In principle I agree. But in practice I don't…as I do use a modification on this approach in my professional practice, albeit in perhaps a different performance context as some of you who have commented already.

As with any tool - it's all in the users ability to get the job done. And most importantly - exactly what was that job? And then is this the tool for that job? Or, does it require modification, adaptation before use?

What were the objectives of the "brainstorming session - BS" - and was one of them making everyone feel important/as smart as the next person? And go home with their "balloon?"

Well, then that's what it is, as worthless as that may seem and probably is. Averaged down by the assembly of the smallest to the highest numerators - all over that denominator of 1. Instead of leveraging off of only the best and's avaeraging down.

If on the other hand any of the other objectives for the BS were to create brillant ideas/designs/etc. then each contribution would eventually have to undergo some hard scrutiny against the specific REQUIREMENTS/CRITERIA or OBJECTIVES for the effort. With perhaps many combinations of "contributions" and trade-off decisions to be weighed and made, against those specific objectives.

I use a controlled brainstorming-type of approach through a highly structured series of ISD - Instructional Systems Design methods and after first generating lists of things (outputs, tasks, enablers, etc.) we make a second pass to assess each of the contributions for it's criticality, or difficulty, etc. We sort the initial "pile of data" into gradations of from wheat to chaff. Good stuff to bad stuff. Oh- and I hopefully am working with, faciliating Master Performers who truely are. It doesn't avoid problems, conflicts. But it sure can ensure scrutiney of all of the contributions.

I have three postings on my Blog that cover the facilitation of these types of approaches, in my performance context, that may be transferable to some of your performance contexts. The first, from April 26th of this year…

Posted by: Guy William Wallace at May 29, 2007 07:12 PM

Look, I haven't really got a big problem with group working, and Client still request that one does workshops for them. I guess what I am pissed off about is the format and dogma of hte brainstorm.

And I think we need ot be clearer up front about whether the primary purpose of the session is to bond the team (?whatif! stylee) or to create ideas.

I think we have all got into the habit (especially in the account handling fraternity) of calling in a brainstorm like an airstrike - simply to be seen to be doing something when pairs working together or a proper workshop with diverse expertise and voices would be more appropriate.

Posted by: richard huntington at May 29, 2007 08:33 PM

You're right, fed up of multi-purpose account handlers hijacking the creative process!!

Posted by: Martin at May 30, 2007 11:16 AM

Looks like this one's set to peter out then...

Posted by: Holycow at May 30, 2007 12:01 PM

I love multi-purpose account handlers

Posted by: Grumpy at May 30, 2007 12:11 PM

Personally I think the dynamic between contributors is important. It does create a bit of a power struggle, I mean thoughts can only be thrown up at the rate that they can be written down. If you have 7 busy thinkers all vying for attention the flow of thinking can slow down from a storm to a mild breeze.

Posted by: Richard Buchanan at May 30, 2007 02:23 PM

Some ideas are better than others...The best ideas should always rise to the top but you have to generate them first and coming up with lots of them however stupid is a good place to start. Businesses and brands need stupid ideas and out there ones if anything just to get them out of their restrictive ways of thinking. People who put restrictions on the business shouldn't be allowed into brainstorms. It's not coming up with ideas that's the problem it's pushing them far enough. How many times have seen campaigns or businesses that fell short of the good idea.

Posted by: Peter Kwong at May 30, 2007 04:37 PM

perhaps if planners produced more than just insights charts (loosely based on genuine insights/insight), loosely compiled through half baked focus groups, account handlers wouldn't feel the need to organise brainstorms in an attempt of appeasing a client who has spent ridiculous sums of money but has yet to see any decent return on investment.

Posted by: mm at May 30, 2007 10:19 PM


Get on this wagon: I've done away with brainstorming ENTIRELY at my agency (my house).

I've replaced it with what I'm calling "Belmot's Brain El-Nino" (translates as Belmot's Brain The-Nino for non-Spanish speakers).

Instead of a dribble of low-brow ill-thought-out concepts, it's a raging fury of people shouting their ideas at the top of their voices until only one person is left standing.

I tried it with a few people over dinner last week and it was an unpleasantly loud disaster. We "El-Nino-ed" what we wanted for pudding and ended up having prawn cocktail again.

It's early days yet but I'm CONVINCED it's got legs.

Posted by: Mrs Belmot at May 31, 2007 10:44 AM

I've still not heard one solid argument against brainstorming. We've heard a lot about how they can go wrong and we've heard some horror stories. But I've yet to hear one solid argument against them - which leads me to believe that my initial comment about leadership, people present and poor approach.

As far as I’m concerned brainstorming is a valid tool that should be used in the right place, at the right time, by the right people. Your comment about the brainstorm becoming an "air-strike" in order to be seen to do something both appals and frightens me. Is this really how you operate in the UK now? Is the industry in such disarray hopelessly and without structure?

Posted by: Marcus at May 31, 2007 02:25 PM

It seems like what has been said is many good reasons for improving and changing how brainstorms are conducted...

Very little has been said to qualify getting rid of them entirely.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at May 31, 2007 03:05 PM

Cans open, worms everywhere. Excellent.
But why the hell does everything have to be black and white?
I've got to agree that constantly brainstorming to escape the rigour of thinking for yourself, or having to make decisons is ridiculous. But to say that all brainstorming is a waste of time is equally daft.
Bad brainstorming helps no one, but properly managed affairs can be useful in the right context. A big part of that is careful recruitment in the first place, but if it's done properly, anyone can contribute.
I think part of the problem is that most people suffer, is the "Everyone throw ideas out without thinking syndrome". But properly managed exursions are not 'silly warm up games' but useful psychological techniques that make people think in ways they couldn't normally. Done well, new stuff emerges that just couldn't any other way.
Now I like working alone, or with a trusted couple of people, but now and again, I find the best way to come at something from a new angle is to find new connectionsit. That's what proper brainstorming using synaptics is.
If people are brilliant enough to be able to discount all that potential, I envy them, I'm just not that talented.
And by the way, isn't the argument for blogging helping planning that it's online brainstorming on a much larger scale? Sharing ideas? Kicking stuff around? I hope that's what it is.

Posted by: Northern Planner at May 31, 2007 05:39 PM

Black and white simply gets discussion going Andrew - cans being opened and worms on the lose. Good place to start.

Apparantly there is increasing evidence that electronic 'brainstorming' like this is effective. I wonder if that is partly because people have the time to think and respond and to build on each other's ideas. In addition the participants self select and join in or opt out when they want to. In this way we are able to use the talents of a few hundred people as part of the potential 'brainstorm' participants not just a few people that happened to be in the agency that day.

Posted by: richard huntington at May 31, 2007 08:07 PM

Interesting discussion. However:

1. Very little that I have read here is describing actual brainstorming. "All ideas are good ideas" has no part in brainstorming - that's why the client has to select the best ideas to go forward. Plenty of ideas that come out of brainstorming sessions are bad or useless. Neither is brainstorming an open discussion forum - it is a focused idea generating session that has well-established rules.

2. If people are giving bland ideas, the facilitator hasn't properly prepared the group (which should be around 8 people). An essential element of brainstorming is that everyone defers judgement, so they are free to throw out ideas ranging from sensible to crazy. It's the facilitator's job, eventually, to get the group focused on turning the fuzzy ideas into more practical solutions. But the fuzzy abstract ideas are generally the ones that produce novel solutions.

3. If people aren't challenging assumptions and forcing novel connections, again it's the fault of the facilitator for not using the properly abstract divergent tools. Plenty are out there, and a good facilitator needs to know a bunch.

4. Some people just don't have wild, breakthrough ideas. Go visit your countryman Kirton's website and read up on his theories on adaptive and innovative creativity. If you want novel ideas you'll have a better time at it if you get people who tend to generate them.

Not everyone can facilitate a brainstorming session - that's why there's training. Hence the alpha post seems to me to be a rant on bad facilitators more than on brainstorming itself.

Posted by: Innovation Catalyst at June 1, 2007 05:39 AM

Instead of "all ideas are good" I've had success with "all ideas deserve to be built upon" -- which has the effect of focusing the conversation on build/rebuild instead of criticism, which as Gregg Fraley points out, stopping to critique an idea or strangle it interrupts the flow.

Maybe that should be stated, "no idea is bad enough to risk stopping the whole train for".

Posted by: Renee Callahan at June 1, 2007 07:07 PM

Lots of discussion generated here. It is almost like we are brainstorming about the pros and cons of brainstorming.

Anyway, I'd just like to throw my vote in for brainstorming. I think we would all agree that brainstorming can and is often done poorly. But, my experience is that brainstorming can be very effective if done properly.

Posted by: Corey at June 1, 2007 07:27 PM

Renee, excellent point. I would restate my position thus: not all ideas are useful on their face, but contain positive aspects that can be integrated with other ideas. Again, it's the facilitator's job to make the group assess the pros and cons of each idea so that the pros are leveraged and the cons mitigated.

Posted by: Innovation Catalyst at June 2, 2007 03:45 AM

Don't get me wrong Richard, I love you starting this stuff off, it's just a bit disappointing that what follows is so polarised.
That's an interesting point about having time to think on electronic conversations, but I wonder if the two states of mind have different benefits.
I think blogging is at it's best when it works bottom up - lots of people kick stuff around and things come out that have properly debated.
But proper brainstorms have their merit too - largely for 'starts'. It matters who attends, but proper techniques to alter people's frame
of mind matter more. They need to be in a very different state of mind to normal.
I'm a big believer in 'flow' - that's how I want brainstorms to work.
(and the untruth of all ideas are good ideas are good ideas needs to go - egos need to be left at the door).

Posted by: NP at June 2, 2007 12:05 PM

Well I for one have never really enjoyed brainstorming sessions that much, but I've always enjoyed scramble sessions.

Brainstorming tends to happen after the agency brief, scramble sessions in between the client brief and the realisation of the agency brief. So there are fewer media constraints, a lot closer to Manchips idea of a brainstorm - brainstorming the problem as well as the solution.

Posted by: Mark Hurst at June 4, 2007 01:22 PM

The problem with the vast majority of brainstorms seem to be that are a desperate attempt to jump-start a completely stalled planning/creative process. The attendees are selected on the basis of whoever is available, the objectives seem to be produce 10 flip-chart pads of mindmaps and the output (often the desired output) is a long-list of random ideas that will never survive serious interrogation but which will distract clients from the real lack of progress on solving the problems behind their briefs.

I'm convinced that well organised, small and focused brainstorms at the start of thr process can genuinely unlock some fresh area of interest. The former variety are only good for free biscuits and coffee on a slow afternoon...

Posted by: StuartB at June 4, 2007 04:32 PM

As an owner of the first edition of Applied Imagination I'd like to make some trenchant points in favour of your piece. Instead I will just laugh like a girl about your description of moderating as making sure that everyone gets a balloon at the end of the party. My dear colleague Danny Brook-Taylor came up with the C*** Theory Of Brainstorming. You can only truly collaborate with someone you know well enough to call a c***. That's why the best ideas come from small groups of likeminded people, rather than from awkward set-pieces where Jeff from our Coventry office gets to have his say.

Posted by: Tom Morton at June 25, 2007 05:15 PM

;)Sanity is the playground for the unimaginative.

Posted by: austin at July 8, 2007 04:29 AM