Recent research suggests the long “go to innovation tool” of brainstorming doesn’t work*.  How can that be?

I remember the brainstorming sessions of the 80’s.  Friday afternoon a bunch of us might go into a conference room and start brainstorming on an issue.  We might have a facilitator and the rules were all the same. Defer Judgement. One voice at a time. Wild ideas are welcomed. Quantity over quality, etc.  I must admit, while the sessions made you feel good, I don’t recall a GREAT idea emerging from such an unplanned, random gathering of people.  I might conclude brainstorming doesn’t work from these experiences. I don’t however.  Yes, this type of brainstorming is not very productive, but the overall technique is not a failure. That is, if you know how to do it.

Design Thinking as an innovation technique appropriately leverages brainstorming because it doesn’t just assume brainstorming alone can do it all.  With design thinking it prepares you to see possibilities.  Framing enables you to be focused on the right issue.  Empathy and Story allow you to see the broader system and to understand how you might bring a meaningful and useful innovation to it. Prototyping, co-creation and iteration take the nugget of the idea and develop it cheaply and quickly to see the potential of it.  And, a well constructed design thinking process is intentional about who is participating in the creative process. It seeks out the right mix of diversity and experience and then structures the activities and process to tap the brilliance of those participating. In this context, brainstorming is very effective. I have seen ideas born and nurtured in design thinking that have gone forward into the marketplace to make a positive impact.

Things are rarely all bad or all good.  Brainstorming leveraged appropriately is another good tool in the arsenal of the innovator. Like anything, it can be misused. So, don’t throw out this “go to tool.” Rather, get serious about using it to its fullest potential.


Take Action

  • When planning a brainstorming session, consider who you are inviting. Do you have enough diversity of experience and background in the group?
  • What do participants need to be prepared to brainstorm productively?  Perhaps some observational research or some pre-reading or pre work to prime their creative juices?
  • Consider what happens next.  How do you go beyond single words on post its to real ideas that can be iterated?  Include prototyping in any brainstorming session you plan.
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