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047: Is Brainstorming Really An Effective Tool For Creativity?

podcast Jun 14, 2021

A new survey shows that creatives find brainstorming sessions a colossal waste of time. Is this the death of brainstorming?  

It’s true that group flow can be even more powerful than individual flow, but many people aren’t provided the right environment to allow for creative flow to happen.   

A Dutch file-sharing company called WeTransfer surveyed over 20,000 creatives across different genres and 190 countries, and one thing they found was that creatives don’t find brainstorming sessions helpful in creative problem-solving. 

 This supports growing research about the need for individual preparation, incubation time with a problem, and introspection. Brainstorming ignores the important solitude and distraction time necessary for creativity. If you allow people the space and time to think, the quality of their ideas is going to improve.  

Dr. Alex Osborn is the man who developed the brainstorming technique, where I studied it, along with his Creative Problem-Solving process at Buffalo State College in the Creative Studies Department, also known as the International Center for Studies in Creativity.  He started the foundation that led to the establishment of the Creative Studies Department.  

He was both a business leader and academic. He was a founding partner of a multinational advertising agency, BBDO, as well as known for his major contributions to the study of creativity, imagination, and creative problem-solving. His probably most famous book, Applied Imagination, is worth reading, it’s where he describes the brainstorming technique and introduces his Creative Problem-Solving methods.  

In class, we learned and practiced facilitating brainstorming sessions for corporate clients, but something seems to get lost when companies try to squeeze brainstorming sessions into their scheduled meetings throughout the day. That kind of session and that environment don’t give participants a chance to prepare and take the time to form their thoughts.  

This is a crucial step in the process that Alex Osborn promoted, but modern business settings, in their hustle and grind mentality, don’t have time for or see the importance of solitude. In order for groupthink and group flow to happen, we need an element of individual imagination first.  

Though the growing body of evidence suggests brainstorming may not result in the best ideas, it isn’t entirely useless. A Northern Illinois University study highlights its value as a team-building activity rather than a tactical meeting.  Brainstorming may not bring with it creativity, but the positive engagements we go through in practicing it, things like positivity, openness, and building on other’s ideas, does build trust within the team and it promotes cohesion. 

So if you are planning on doing a brainstorming session make sure you follow the steps that are getting skipped. Allow yourself and others the necessary incubation time, it’s the same as sleeping. People take sleeping for granted but it’s a very important part of the creative working process, even though we aren’t actively trying.  

I’ll continue to dig through the research on whether Brainstorming is an effective tool for creativity, it’s certainly a popular one with whiteboards and post-its and all, and it seems great for team building and trust. But for creativity, I’m just not sure yet. Minimally though, rushing the process to fit a busy schedule does seem pretty pointless. Effective creativity comes about when both individual and group brainstorming is allowed to happen. 

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