The Real Value of Creative Brainstorming

Defer judgment” and “reach for quantity.” For more than 60 years, these have remained the two guiding principles of effective brainstorming. Widely credited as the father of brainstorming, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn promoted the notion that a group could generate better ideas by suspending assumptions and sharing perspectives.

Recent articles and studies debate whether a larger volume of ideas can be generated by solo brainstorming, but none argue that the value of a group brainstorming session can deliver much more than just great ideas. A well-planned and facilitated idea-generating session can help build consensus, recognize common goals and avoid groupthink. It also can help participants feel included, respected and valued for their input.

Helpful Brainstorming Session

Using magazine clippings, 5 by 5 Design is able to help clients think visually and verbally about the creative process.

I think judgment creeps into the room because, too often, people consider brainstorming as the total creative process rather than just one step of the creative process. — Sam Harrison


“Brainstorming needs to be about quantity, not quality,” echoes Sam Harrison, an author on creativity-related topics. “Once we have a generous number of ideas, they can be judged and edited in a subsequent session, overlaying factors such as budgets, timelines, demographics and so forth. Brainstorming should be a right-brain festivity.”

Further agreeing with Osborn, Harrison says, “The No. 1 killer, of course, is judgment. Brainstorms hit the brakes whenever somebody says, ‘We tried that and it didn’t work,’ or ‘Our management will never go for that,’ or ‘That’s so stupid.’ People need to feel safe in a brainstorming session. I think judgment creeps into the room because, too often, people consider brainstorming as the total creative process rather than just one step of the creative process. Consequently, teams will go into a brainstorming session saying, ‘We’ve got to come out of here with one great idea.’ When that happens, the left side of the brain cranks up, so they are automatically restricting their minds and inviting judgment into the room.” To overcome these barriers, Harrison recommends setting a stage for productive brainstorming. “Before beginning a session, it’s important to get everybody mentally in the room,” he says. “After all, most people walk into a brainstorming session thinking about what they left on their desks, what project they should be working on or where they want to have lunch. So there needs to be some quick exercise that will get people relaxed and in the moment. … I’ve used Trivial Pursuit, stupid body tricks, office Olympic games, you name it. I just try to make it fun and fast—fi ve minutes max.”

Harrison says brainstorming should be “fast and furious” because the ideas slow down when people
get too comfortable. “When I see people becoming languid in a brainstorming session, I’ll call for a break. When people return, all the chairs have been removed. It’s amazing how the energy picks up and how fast things move when people are on their feet,” he says. “KesselsKramer, a highly creative communications firm in Amsterdam, has a picnic table in its brainstorming room. They say 45 minutes is about how long people can sit before backs start aching and everybody has to start moving around.”

A facilitator also can help keep group brainstorms on track. Harrison continues, “You don’t necessarily have to hire a professional—although that can sometimes be a good idea, especially if the group is stalled or unaccustomed to brainstorming together—but it should be someone who can be diplomatic and objective. And, by the way, that’s usually not the boss or manager. A good facilitator may be someone in the group or a co-worker who is not part of the project. A good facilitator can spur the pace, keep everybody involved, reduce judgment, eliminate confusion and maintain focus on the topic or problem.”

Brainstorming Flair


With or without a facilitator, another frequent challenge in brainstorming is gathering a diverse collection of participants. “If everybody thinks alike and works alike, then the ideas will probably all look alike. Bringing in people from outside or from other areas of responsibility adds energies, insights and perspectives,” Harrison says.

Diana Lillicrap and Wendy Ruyle agree. As the co-founders of Minneapolis-based 5 By 5 Design, they also warn that successful brainstorming requires advance preparations. “It takes a lot of planning to do it right,” Lillicrap explains. “This not only includes setting up the room for inclusive participation, determining the best exercises for the organization and clearly defi ning the topic; it also includes gaining an understanding of the group dynamics and expectations for their intended outcomes.”

Along with a facilitator, 5 By 5 Design also recommends a scribe to capture the ideas on vertical writing areas (white boards, fl ip charts, etc.) and a note-taker to record the more intimate details, such as who supported or disagreed with certain ideas and key individuals. “Sometimes, we’ll purposefully have the most senior person be the fi rst one to speak. Sometimes, we’ll make sure that this is the person who gets the last say,” Lillicrap continues. “It comes back to doing our homework and understanding the group’s personalities, the organization’s culture and balancing these with the brainstorm process intended to give power to everyone’s voice.”

Ruyle agrees: “Everyone deserves to be heard and has something to add to the conversation, no matter how minor,” she says. “By strategically selecting your participants, you can gain intrinsic value. You can provide the opportunity for a C-level manager to see through an employee’s eyes. You can also foster an opportunity for different collaborators on a project to work together to solve a common problem, which leads to empowerment and increased communication as a result of the process.”

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