Solo Brainstorming?

An interesting post appeared earlier this month on Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network. The title of the post, authored by Andrew O’Brien, was: “Sometimes, It’s Better to Brainstorm Alone.” If, by brainstorming, he was referring to the technique developed by Alex Osborn, solo brainstorming is a contradiction in terms. If he is using “brainstorming” to refer to idea generation in general (a misuse of the term), then he has a point. (If you’d like more information on “How to Run a Brainstorming Session That Works”, download the pdf).

What I found more interesting than O’Brien’s post were the comments about it, particularly people’s reactions to brainstorming (as either a specific technique or as group ideation). When I last looked, there were 15 comments and of those 8 were favorable toward brainstorming, 2 were cautious, and 3 were negative. Interestingly, 2 of the 3 negative comments came from people who worked in advertising:

  • “In an ad agency, the word “brainstorming” usually means it’s time for a bagel break.”
  • “…I can tell you from experience that so called ‘brainstorming’ is of precious little use.”

The technique of brainstorming was developed by an advertising executive, Alex Osborn, in 1939. He first wrote about the technique in 1948, the beginning of the heady days of advertising, the start of the Mad Men era. Brainstorming, in those early days, served advertising well. It worked.

You know what? Brainstorming still works. If it’s not working for you, I would suggest one the following reasons:

  • the technique is not being used the way it was designed to be used.
  • the technique is the only technique being used to generate ideas.
  • the session leader is domineering.
  • the session leader is weak.
  • the session leader doesn’t know how to run a brainstorm (see the first point).
  • the place and/or timing of the session were inappropriate.

If you want guidelines on how to run a successful session, please do read the pdf mentioned above. One of the comments to O’Brien’s post suggested that a good ideation session is like a buffet: there should be a variety of choices. Brainstorming is a legitimate technique for idea generation even if it is only one of many. Another choice for idea generation, as O’Brien suggested, is to work alone at times. Just don’t call it brainstorming.

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