Brainstorming re-revisited

Every so often the practice of brainstorming in groups receives criticism for being ineffective and hindering the idea generation process.

Case in point is the July 2010 Newsweek article Forget Brainstorming:  which generated much discussion and rebuttal among those working in the field of creativity and innovation. The article based its critique on a Yale study conducted in 1958.

Jonathan Vehar, the co-founder of New and Improved, a US firm working for over 20 years to improve team creativity, refutes the Newsweek article. He points out that what many refer to as brainstorming is ‘a bunch of people sitting around firing off and shooting down ideas.’

He points to studies at the International Centre for Studies in Creativity at SUNY in Buffalo, which showed that those trained in divergent thinking could generate twice as many ideas as those who were not.

Which helps to adhere to the first rule of brainstorming as developed by Alex Osborn in the 1950s:


The biggest blunder, it seems, is to have an untrained facilitator.

Use a skilled facilitator, says Linda Naiman, from Creativity at Work. Use someone who is trained and will commence the session by getting the group to define the problems well; drawing up a clear problem/opportunity statement.

She may even get individuals to start thinking about these before the group session, allowing them some time to sit with the issue. As Vehar reminds us, brainstorming was developed as a ‘supplement’ to individual idea generation.

This is echoed by Dr Amantha Imber, founder of the successful, Melbourne based company, Inventium. While she has been a strong detractor of group brainstorming, she agrees that generating ideas alone is very helpful. She also uses a technique called shifting.  

This simply has participants generating ideas individually for five minutes and then bringing their ideas to the group, generating more and then returning to thinking on their own.

A skilled facilitator will also be able to direct participants to play off each others’ ideas using techniques and processes that encourage the generation of ideas; techniques that activate right brain thinking like SCAMPER, brainwriting or physical/sensory theatre activities and games.

This would help to promote the second and third rules of brainstorming:



Other pitfalls to brainstorming that would be avoided by practised facilitator include Groupthink, domination by the more extroverted, preventing ‘slackers’ from riding on others’ ideas and contributing nothing, and those who don’t contribute from fear of having their ideas judged. Which takes us to the fourth rule of successful brainstorming:


For a great website with lots of up to date discussion on creativity and innovation go to: