March 2, 2024

Getting brainstorming wrong

Author: Clark
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There’s a time when someone takes a result, doesn’t put it into context, and leads you to bad information. And we have to call it out. In this case, someone opined about a common misconception in regards to brainstorming. This person cited a scientific study to buttress an argument about how such a process should go. However, the approach cited in the study was narrower than what brainstorming could and should be. As a consequence, the article gave what I consider to be bad information. And that’s a problem.


Brainstorming, to be fair, has many interpretations.  The original brought people into a room, had them generate ideas, and evaluate them.  However, as I wrote elsewhere, we now have better models of brainstorming. The most important thing is to get everyone to consider the issue independently, before sharing. This taps into the benefits of diversity. You should have identified the criteria of the problem to be addressed or outcome you’re looking for.

Then, you share, and still refrain from evaluation, looking for ideas sparked from the combinations of two individual ideas, extending them (even illogically). the goal here is to ensure you explore the full space of possibilities. The point here is to diverge.

Finally, you get critical and evaluate the ideas. Your goal is to converge on one or several that you’re going to test. Here, you’re looking to surface the best option under the relevant criteria. You should be testing against the initial criteria.

Bad Advice

So, where did this other article go wrong? The premise what that the idea of ‘no bad ideas’ wasn’t valid. They cited a study where groups were given one of three instructions before addressing a problem: not to criticize, free to debate and criticize, or no instructions.  The groups with instructions did better, but the criticize group were. best.  And that’s ok, because this wasn’t an optimal brainstorming design.

What the group with debate and criticizing were actually tasked with doing most of the whole process: freewheeling debate and evaluation, diverging and converging. The second instruction group was just diverging. But, if you’re doing it all at once, you’re not getting the benefit of each stage! They were all missing the independent step, the freewheeling didn’t have evaluation, and the combined freewheeling and criticizing group wouldn’t get the best of either.

This simplistic interpretation of the research misses the nuances of brainstorming, and ends up giving bad advice. Ok, if the folks doing the brainstorming in orgs are violating the premise of the stages, it is good advice, but why would you do suboptimal brainstorming?  It might take a tiny bit longer, but it’s not a big issue, and the outputs are likely to be better.

Doing better

We can, and should, recognize the right context to begin with, and interpret research in that context. Taking an under-informed view can lead you to misinterpret research, and consequently lead you to bad prescriptions.  I’m sure this article gave this person and, by association, the patina of knowing what they’re talking about. They’re citing research, after all!  But if you unpack it, the veneer falls off and it’s unhelpful at the core. And it’s important to be able to dig deep enough to really know what’s going on.

I implore you to turn a jaundiced eye to information that doesn’t come from someone with some real time in the trenches. We need good research translatorsI’ve a list of trustworthy sources on the resources page of my book on myths. Tread carefully in the world of self-promoting media, and you’ll be less hampered by the mud ;).

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