Brainstorming is considered an effective tool for teams to come up with new ideas. But not long ago, lots of business academics thought it was rubbish. There were debates, articles, research, experiments all done to establish the effectiveness of brainstorming for businesses. They concluded (maybe surprisingly to our modern ears) that brainstorming is an ineffective tool for facilitating creativity in organisations. That it led to a drop in productivity. That it had a lower creative output to when individuals come up with ideas on their own.
- group members may not express some ideas because they worry about what others think
- individuals in groups do not feel as accountable for producing ideas, so they try less
- individual idea generation is “blocked” while they wait their turn to talk
This clearly ruffled the wrong feathers as a couple of Stanford researchers named Robert Sutton and Andrew Hargadon set out to investigate this verdict for themselves.
To do this, they set up camp in IDEO — the renowned product design firm — to observe how the firm made use of the brainstorming technique. Between March 1994 and May 1995, they observed how a collective total of 80 designers made use of the brainstorming ideation technique. In their paper — Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm — they concluding that face-to-face brainstorming sessions were, indeed, highly effective idea generators (earlier conclusions were adjudged invalid because the research they were based upon was flawed).
But perhaps most interestingly, the researchers also discovered 6, additional, benefits of brainstorming. Allow me to share…
1. It supports the ‘organisational memory’ of design solutions
According to Wikipedia, ‘organisational memory’ as “the accumulated body of data, information, and knowledge created in the course of an individual organization’s existence… it has two repositories: an organization’s archives, including its electronic data bases; and individuals’ memories.”
By embedding brainstorming into their ideation processes, IDEO improves their organisational memory of design solutions. This is because is often the first step in the design process. Brainstorms often concern products IDEO has not designed before, so preparation entails gathering related products by the client and its competitors. The process begins with the facilitator teaching participants about the product and the design challenge to generate ideas about.
Participating designers store this knowledge, retrieve it from storage, blend it, and adapt it for new design problems — strengthening IDEO’s organisational memory.
Brainstorming is also a great way at distributing design knowledge among IDEO engineers and designers. It teaches junior designers and reminds experienced ones of which design solutions had been previously considered, and spreads information about solutions that are new to the organisation.
The organisation’s memory is then further fortified when the ideas developed in brainstorming sessions are stored away, typically in three places:
- Ideas are saved in the minds of designers who attend the brainstorm.
- Physical prototypes built in brainstorms are kept and used to design future products.
- Ideas developed in brainstorms are recorded in sketches, reports and, sometimes, in videotapes.
2. It provides skill variety for designers
Simply put, brainstorming mixes it up. It gives participants the chance to use and learn a variety of skills and techniques, and expands the skills they would use in a typical week. The official term for this is ‘skill variety’.
This is because brainstorming at IDEO involves a wide variety of interesting tasks. It might be learning about new products and industries, blending old ideas in new ways, refining others’ ideas, sketching designs, or making crude prototypes.
“Brainstorms are one of the most fun things I do at IDEO.”
And by making the work so fun and engaging, IDEO can then recruit and retain engineers who are in demand elsewhere in Silicon Valley.
3. It supports an attitude of wisdom
A slightly more abstract benefit is that the brainstorming sessions create an ‘attitude of wisdom’ within the organisation.
- set and reinforce cultural norms of experimentation and treating one another respectfully
- reflect the general expectations for thought and action
- remind designers to generate many ideas, develop a few in depth, make many changes in developed ideas
- teach the belief that many bad ideas can lead to a few good ones
4. It creating a status auction
I really love this one. Brainstorming sessions basically allow designers to flex on each other.
It provides a forum to demonstrate and show off their skills, thinking and knowledge. It is a great way for the designers with the best ideas — and therefore of higher status — to rise to the top of the hierarchy of IDEO.
“the only way to enhance your status in the organisation is by earning the respect of your peers.”
These brainstorms become ‘status auctions’, in which people bid for status, and depending on how others respond, their status may go up or down. These auctions flow rapidly and fairly. They have a high degree of civility, due the ‘rules’ of the game:
- defer judgment
- build on the ideas of others
- one conversation at a time
- stay focused on the topic
- encourage wild ideas
The good designers in the brainstorms develop good reputations in the organisation. The best designers may be given the chance to facilitate the next brainstorm. Having a good reputation for participating in and leading brainstorms is viewed as an important indicator of overall status in the hierarchy of IDEO.
5. It impresses clients
Clients love IDEO brainstorms. They are impressed with the concepts produced in the brainstorms, and with the fun and creativity on display.
“You do it to show the client that you’ve got a good start, to show them that you’ve got a grasp of the problem and are being clever. You want them to think, Wow, I’m glad I came to these guys. They are starting out with a bang!”
They also love participating themselves as they can gather ideas more quickly in a brainstorm than through a series of conversations with individual designers.
“brainstorms are an efficient way for clients to get ideas from IDEO designers”
As one designer put it, clients are “amazed when we come up with almost every solution they’ve ever thought of during the first 30 minutes.”
Brainstorming also encourage positive reaction from clients. They are encouraged to express positive emotions and to say positive words about the ideas generated during these meetings. Impressed, happy clients mean better reputations, improved status and gained responsibility.
6. It can provide additional income
This depends on what your organisation does. But brainstorms make money for IDEO.
Some clients do not sign up for a long-term project. Instead they hire IDEO to hold their renowned brainstorms, as they are an expected part of the design process, which is endorsed and used by legitimate sources of authority and expertise. Even if they are not the most technically efficient way to generate ideas, they are widely accepted.
- It supports the ‘organisational memory’ of design solutions
- It provides skill variety for designers
- It supports an attitude of wisdom
- It creating a status auction
- It impresses clients
- It can provide additional income
These were observed at IDEO (so may not be present everywhere), but the findings suggest that brainstorming sessions may improve the capability of other organisations to do good work in the future. So next opportunity you have to brainstorm with your team, bear these benefits in mind and see if you can notice them too.
Until next time. ✌️