Enough with brainstorming already

The next time you’re invited to or thinking about running a brainstorm: don’t.

Brainstorming as many consider it to work today is antiquated. The notion of being able to generate a lot of random ideas in a group setting came about in a time before email, instant messaging, and the always-ready personal super-computer (or iPhone).

Literally: brainstorming was conceptualized in 1953 and first became widely used in the 1970s!

Today the landscape of work and collaboration has changed.

Where brainstorming can lead to problems like groupthink and building upon biases of the louder voices, alternatives to group brainstorming can avoid such issues.

Typically a brainstorm works like this: a person or two (typically in some type of leadership role) organize a time dedicated to gathering several people in a room. Sticky notes or whiteboard markers are often provided to the group.

From there, upwards of an hour (or more) is dedicated to exploring ideas, any ideas at all. “There are no bad ideas,” people will say. “Anything goes.”

And what tends to follow in these situations is a quiet room of stillness. Maybe one person will start doodling or writing gibberish, but the majority of the room is spent wondering what to write, either because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or because they simply aren’t aware of all the contexts of what problem it is they’re idea should resolve.

Such a feeble exercise is prized because it feels like a team effort toward solutions. It feels like productivity. But in reality brainstorming tends to waste both time and money.

For each person involved in a brainstorm, you must multiply the time invested to see exactly how much working costs a brainstorm costs.

If twelve people are involved in a one-hour brainstorm, you just spent 12 people hours for what? A few ideas which likely one or more individuals on the team could have drummed up themselves, independently, given an hour to do it?

And that’s really what we should be considering today as an alternative to group brainstorming: the power of the connected individual.

Instead of running a brainstorm, consider emailing (remember email?) each person and requesting they quickly send you a bulleted list of ten ideas for a problem. Ten ideas, right now, nobody will ever see the list and anything goes because you’ve got nothing to lose.

If twelve people take five minutes to email you ten ideas each, you’ve only used up one total working hour to get arguably the same results of a brainstorm.

Better yet: by giving people the time and space to think about the request for ideas outside of a dedicated meeting space (one in which extroverts tend to overpower others), you’re also enabling them to do research and free-thinking on the problem, which is likely to generate more impactful results.

Something to think about the next time you’re invited to, or thinking about putting on, a brainstorm.