OPINION12 August 2013

Challenging three myths of brainstorming


Two heads aren’t better than one says Market Strategies’ George Dichiaro as he tackles some of the misconceptions that are most common to the ideation process.


Facilitating ideation sessions – whether with consumers or clients – is one of my favourite research challenges. I have conducted several “How to Build a Better Mousetrap” projects over the years, everything from designing a drug store of the future to re-imagining the paper plate.

When I was given my first assignment in the mid-1990s (new product development for a cosmetics manufacturer), I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know where to start, how to structure the session or how best to unleash the creativity of the 25 client ‘experts’.

Fortunately, I had a mentor – a seasoned ideation facilitator who taught me the tricks of the trade. He started with a few of his cardinal rules of brainstorming and gave me an old, tattered book called Your Creative Power ( 1948 ) by Alex Osborn (a partner at BBDO), who he described as the “Godfather of Brainstorming”. He directed me to a couple of chapters on how to facilitate brainstorming, which were the source of his cardinal rules.

How to build a better ideation process

While Osborn’s methods were groundbreaking, they have gone largely unchallenged. That is, until recently. Last year, while flipping through The New Yorker I came across an article entitled Groupthink by Jonah Lehrer, in which the author referenced the Osborn book and how the tried-and-true techniques for brainstorming facilitation simply don’t work – at least, not as well as advertised. Lehrer cites several research studies, some going back to the 1950s, which debunk Osborn’s tenets. Further research on my part was a real eye-opener: There is evidence everywhere that we should rethink some of the ideation basics. Here are a few brainstorming myths to keep in mind for your next ideation challenge:

Myth #1: Two heads are better than one
Brainstorming in a group creates many more ideas than working alone. The group dynamic stimulates deeper thinking and greater creativity.

In fact, the research evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Studies show the same number of people working alone generate far more ideas (and more creative ideas) than when the same people are given the same task in a group. There is something about the group dynamic that makes the individual less creative. Does this mean we shouldn’t gather people together for ideation sessions anymore? I don’t think so.  But it does mean that more emphasis should be placed on individual brainstorming prior to and after the group’s generating and sharing of new ideas.

Myth #2: There are no bad ideas
Ideas should flow freely without making judgements about the quality of the ideas. Censoring criticism encourages more unrestrained associations and, therefore, increases the chances of finding more and better ideas.

Again, studies have shown just the opposite. More and better ideas are generated within an environment of debate and evaluation. Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our own viewpoints. The tricky part of conducting a judgement-based ideation session is that there are participants of varying levels of seniority and expertise, which may discourage junior team members from expressing their own ideas. Of course, this is something the facilitator needs to skillfully address when setting up the session and conveying the ground rules.

Myth #3 (sort of): Familiarity breeds ideas
The ideation group should include those who know each other and are well versed on the subject matter, with just a few participants defined as “creative” and perhaps having a less direct connection to the subject at hand.

The ideation studies I have conducted with clients were usually set up this way. They consisted of individuals from different departments of the firm (marketing, R&D, finance, HR, etc.) as well as a few creative ad agency, graphic arts and consultant types familiar with the client. However, research has shown that the best ideas are generated from groups that comprise a fine balance of people familiar and unfamiliar with each other. If the group is too homogeneous, innovation is diminished because everyone tends to think in similar ways.  But if the group is too diverse, its members may struggle to work with each other and exchange ideas because they are simply not used to doing so.

The key is adding the right amount of diverse thought to ideations sessions. Including people from other industries, artists, writers and consumers can create an ideal environment of diverse perspectives. Be advised that there is still a touch of truth to this myth because a little familiarity can add to the comfort level of a group. This is especially true when conducting ideation groups with consumers. Rather than having a room full of strangers, it would help to invite some friends, family or co-workers into the group to add more comfort to the brainstorming.

George Dichiaro is a vice president and senior research consultant with Market Strategies Qualitative


11 years ago

An interesting read, although I would question whether Lehrer’s article mentioned in the text is a credible one given his involvement in use of dubious facts and plagiarism..

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11 years ago

Good point about Lehrer. However, in this case this is all very sound insight on creativity and groupthink, supported by numerous studies and research by experts in the field. There are some great tips here - We are a big fan of individual brainstorming before meeting and do this a lot with groups - and with ourselves!

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11 years ago

This is a great read with some really useful suggestions to consider when designing and recruiting for brainstorm sessions. This resonates with the approach we have taken a lot recently - engaging participants in individual online pre-tasks before and after group sessions. There was also an article in the IJMR recently discussing lead users and emergent nature consumers as the best people to work with for co-creation, I think that is something to throw in the mix here too? It has certainly been useful to seek out these kinds of consumers for us.

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11 years ago

A hard one to crack because, as they say, "it depends". Some of the myths are still totally relevant, but used depending entirely on the category, the audience and the objective

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