The idea of brainstorming sessions has been fairly divisive over the last few years, with a deluge of articles, op-eds and blogs respectively denouncing the notion and singing its praises. Despite its polarizing nature, many leading businesses have used the tactic with positive results. It’s a fast, dependable and cost-free method of compiling new ideas born of a team’s diverse backgrounds and life experiences. What’s more, the collaborative nature of a brainstorm session allows ideas to evolve and develop in real time when suggestions spur new thoughts or trigger memories of existing ones. In addition to its strength as a tool for idea generation, periodic brainstorm sessions can also strengthen a business’ team and its culture as a whole.
The method was pioneered by New York advertising executive Alex Faickney Osborn when his agency’s value began declining and its output became stagnant. He initially referred to the process as “organized ideation” before introducing the term “brainstorming” in his 1953 book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. Osborn outlined four rules of brainstorming that are still valuable today:
1. There is no criticism, evaluation, judgment, or defense of ideas during the brainstorming session.
While peer feedback is important, it is detrimental to the purpose of the brainstorm session, which is to efficiently generate a broad list of ideas.
2. Freewheeling and free association are encouraged.
Free association can help participants discover ideas they didn’t know they had or help draw connections that may not have been readily apparent, even if they initially seem absurd.
3. Quantity is more desired than quality.
Putting too much thought into suggestions can decrease a participant’s output, defeating the purpose of the exercise. It may also cause them to second-guess a good idea as a result of self-doubt.
4. Building on ideas is encouraged.
As mentioned previously, the collaborative nature of the brainstorm session allows ideas to be workshopped as they arise, leading to an improvisational idea session with potentially brilliant results.
Brainstorm sessions aren’t just good for generating new ideas, they can be a great exercise in teambuilding and elevating company culture. “Groups that focus on both the quantity of ideas and building on the ideas of others significantly increase their cohesiveness,” said Dave Henningsen, a researcher with Northern Illinois University who conducted a study on the benefits of brainstorming. “Brainstorming can be used to help a team buy into and implement a plan of action,” Henningsen said. “Or it can be used to simply build cohesiveness, which in turn can lessen employee turnover and increase employee commitment.”
While the debate may not end anytime soon, it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that brainstorming has been such a popular method for the better part of a century. It should be noted that Osborn didn’t view brainstorming as a problem-solving method per se, but rather a component of a larger process wherein teams would evaluate, discuss and select ideas to use moving forward.