What is Brainstorming?

Brendan McGuigan

Brainstorming is a technique used to harness the power of a group to come up with creative solutions to a problem. There is actually very little strong evidence that it is an effective technique for generative ideas, either in terms of sheer quantity, or in terms of higher quality. Nonetheless, it remains to be very popular among businesses and creative personalities.

Jotting down thoughts onto a pad of paper aids in finding solutions to problems.
Jotting down thoughts onto a pad of paper aids in finding solutions to problems.

This process has probably existed for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that it became popularized with the publication of a book written by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, called Applied Imagination. After the book, the technique became incorporated into many business models as a way to come up with huge amounts of ideas, the hope being that out of that quantity would come at least one or two exceptionally strong ideas. The technique was particularly popular in the advertising world, and from there made its way into other group businesses.

Group members must feel free to express themselves during a brainstorming session.
Group members must feel free to express themselves during a brainstorming session.

There are four main principles in brainstorming: acceptance, quantity, outside-the-box thinking, and combinatory thinking. Each of these is thought to encourage a group synergy that will produce ideas that wouldn’t be arrived at by individuals thinking on their own. In recent years, as critique of the process has increased, some alternative theories have begun to appear, but for the most part this four-part model remains dominant.

Acceptance of ideas is a cornerstone of this process. The general idea is that the critical process is put on hold during the brainstorming process. There are no stupid ideas during a session, allowing people to bring up ideas they otherwise might be embarrassed or hesitant to bring up. Members of the group are free to add their own thoughts, but it is important these be entirely positive, with any critique saved for after the session itself.

Sheer quantity is another key thought in this technique. Since one of the primary goals is to come up with something innovative, it is thought that the odds of hitting on such a remarkable idea are increased by increasing the output of ideas. The adage quantity breeds quality is often used to describe this key point.

Outside of the box thinking is also very encouraged during a brainstorming session. Often the most successful ideas, particularly in marketing, are completely innovative and unexpected. The search for these ideas is more difficult using traditional methods, since the ideas are very rarely able to be reduced to a simple formula. By encouraging unusual ideas, the potential to arrive on dynamic new concepts is thought to be greater than otherwise.

Lastly, brainstorming relies on a group dynamic, in which ideas are combined and improved by others in the group. The thought is that by taking a number of strong ideas, a truly exceptional idea can be arrived at. The adage 1+1=3 is often used to illustrate this idea.

Usually a session has a chairman, who lays out the ground rules and presents the problem for which solutions are sought. Ideas are then generated by the group, and either cast aside, improved, or combined with other ideas. The final list of ideas is then used by a later group, either as a jumping off point for further brainstorming, or as a list from which to cull ideas for final implementation.

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