Are we brainstorming effectively?

Whenever we speak of Brainstorming, the name of Alex Osborne comes to our mind - how he thought of Brainstorming in the 50s and got it popular over the years. One of the main challenges during practical brainstorming is the fact that participants in the team tend to criticise each other's ideas and thus kill the creative thinking ability of the group of 6-7 ideal participants.

Practitioners overlook the fact that during the brainstorming session, only creative and practical ideas are invited, the ideas are not checked for their implementability, practicality, etc. Any brainstorming group would also have a leader and documenter who writes down all ideas for rational thinking later on.

When Prof. Roger Sperry of Caltech (picture on left receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize) came out with the Split Brain theory, he said the human brain is divided into two hemispheres, the creative right hemisphere and the rational left hemisphere. (click here)

For the brainstorming session, the first ten minutes keep only the creative thinking right-side brain open, shutting the rational thinking left hemisphere. This will help generate enough creative ideas. For the next ten minutes rationally looking at ideas, keep the rational left hemisphere working, shutting off the creative right hemisphere of the brain, the team selects the top 3 practical ideas.

One of the greatest criticisms of brainstorming is how do we get the participants to participate and come up with creative ideas?

Leigh Thompson in Oct '17 HBR came up with this article that asked each of the participants to come up with an embarrassing story or unfortunate event in their life (click here). This idea worked very well for me and I have been using this technique in all my design thinking exercises too. (click here)

Another criticism on Brainstorming is the fact that only some members participate while others do not give any creative contribution to the generation of ideas.

IDEO has a list of rules for brainstorming.

  • defer judgement till the end of the session.
  • encourage thinking out of the box and really wild creative ideas.
  • team members can build on the ideas from the other team members.
  • to remain focused on the main topic.
  • follow a stream of ideas on a subject at any time.
  • try to be more visual, with lots of illustrations to help.
  • quantity is more important than quality.

Click here for HBR article by Art Markman in May '17 where we are introduced to the idea of 6-3-5 methodology.

In this method in a group of 6 members,

  • each member would write out three creative ideas each on how to solve the problem at hand on a piece of paper.
  • each of the members would pass the paper to the immediate partner to his right
  • the partner would write his comments and/or new ideas on these 3 ideas and pass on to his right-side partner.
  • this passing to the part to the right is carried out 5 times till the fifth partner.

Now we have each participant with a sheet of paper that has 18 ideas or comments. By research this method has been found to be very effective.

Click here for a presentation I gave at Alliance University on Creative and Innovative Thinking on 20 Feb 2021.

-Dr. George Easaw
Professor & Area Chair- Operations Management
Alliance School of Business


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