By David Burkus, author and speaker on leadership and innovation
Brainstorming is one of the most over-used words in business today, maybe even most over-used in all organizations. Any time people are trying to come up with ideas, they call it brainstorming. Whether you’re alone or in groups…brainstorming. Whether you actually captured ideas down somewhere or just talked for an hour….brainstorming. Everything is labelled brainstorming (no surprise then that it seems like everyone hates brainstorming). So let’s go all the way back to where it began and examine what brainstorming is and isn’t.
It’s hard to believe that a ubiquitous term like “brainstorming” actually was coined by a suspect person. But it was. The term followed an ideation process invented by Alex Osborn. Osborn wrote arguably the first book on creativity at work ever, Applied Imagination. Inside the book, he laid out a system maximizing the number of ideas you generate by leveraging the power of a group. Alex also set out four rules — the four rules of brainstorming — that a lot of people remember, but a lot of people get wrong.
Those four rules were:
- Go for quantity over quality, because we know the best way to get good ideas is to just start with lots of ideas.
- Withhold criticism, also said as “no idea is a bad idea”.
- Encourage wild ideas; just freewheel and go crazy? (Sort of the point of rule two.)
- Combine and improve upon ideas.
Right away we should say that if you’re not following these rules, then you’re not doing actual brainstorming. So that thing you hate that your manager or someone else made you do probably didn’t even qualify as brainstorming.
But as it refers to brainstorming the technique, a lot of attention gets directed at the “no-idea-is-a-bad-idea” rule. Some have even said it’s the most important of the four rules of brainstorming. And that’s probably a good thing. A lot of people self-censor ideas and hold back rather than risk criticism. But the truth is, the most important rule is actually rule four: combine and improve upon ideas.
In a number of studies, researchers have found that brainstorming, as a tool for just generating ideas, is actually less effective than having the same number of people go off by themselves and generate ideas by themselves, and then come back and just look at the total lists that people generated. Some have even gone so far as to suggest these studies were the “end of brainstorming”.
But as Osborn likely knew, the sheer count of the number of ideas wasn’t the point. Using quantity to improve quality was, and you get that by combining ideas. The real genius of brainstorming, the real genius of putting people together in a room, are the combinations.
Anybody can come up with a list, but it’s when you get together as a team that you have a collection of different past experiences that relates to the focus of the session.
Those different perspectives mean different takes on the idea and different possibilities for combination. When you put those two pieces together, you start making these combinations that are better than those individual ideas. Remember that there’s no such thing as an original idea. All ideas are combinations of pre-existing ideas.
This means that the single best thing you can do to generate amazing ideas in a brainstorming session is to play with as many possible combinations as you can. And that’s the piece that groups do better than individuals. Combine and improve upon ideas. That’s how to brainstorm properly. If you are not combining, then you are not brainstorming.
David Burkus is a best-selling author, sought-after speaker and associate professor of Leadership and Innovation at Oral Roberts University. He’s delivered keynotes to leaders of Fortune 500 companies, his TED talk has been viewed over 1.9 million times and he is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review. His newest book, “Friend of a Friend“, offers a new perspective on how to grow networks and build key connections.