Five-Step Creative Alternative to Brainstorming

By Paul Kjer | February 6, 2018


Quick question. You need to solve a problem which is both challenging and important. You want to get people thinking creatively, and you want to get ideas from a lot of different people. Because of the importance of the issue, you are willing to consider just about any idea. You reach into your toolbox and what do you pull out? If your answer is “Brainstorming” you might want to think again.

"brainstorming doesn't work"

If you Google search “brainstorming doesn’t work” (with quotes), you get over 48,000 results, many of them citing a New Yorker article from 2016 that made the case that, well, brainstorming doesn’t work.

If this is news to you, you can be forgiven for thinking that brainstorming works. I think it does – I have been in brainstorming sessions that worked. It might be more accurate to say that there are significant issues with brainstorming and that there are better ways to come up with creative ideas than ‘classic brainstorming.’

Issues with Brainstorming

There are a lot of issues with brainstorming. A Harvard Business Review article from March 25, 2015, “Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time” lists four:

  1. Social loafing, the idea that an individual will be carried by the team,
  2. Social anxiety, a fear of evaluation by others that cannot be erased by saying ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’,
  3. Regression to the mean, where the most talented idea generators will lower their potential to match the group, and
  4. Production backlog, where the number of ideas presented by each person declines as the size of the group increases.

Other sources add other items to the list. An article from Forbes magazine from October 8, 2014, “Brainstorming Doesn't Work -- Do This Instead” points out that extroverts tend to dominate brainstorming sessions reducing the number of ideas that might be generated by introverts, and that the phenomenon of ‘group think’ actually limits the creativity of a group of people, as participants gravitate towards a few ideas. Another often cited issue with brainstorming is the lack of time to prepare or consider ideas.

Better than Brainstorming

Here is a five-step alternative that has worked for me.

  1. Conduct a meeting with the people you would like involved in solving the problem. Ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Explain that you will reconvene in a week and that when you reconvene each person should be prepared to provide a one or two sentence description of his or her five (or more) best ideas to solve the problem.
  2. Follow-up during the week. If people are stuck coming up with ideas, there are plenty of resources available for creative ideation. Make sure that everyone has at least five ideas before you reconvene.
  3. When you reconvene, circle through the group, allowing each person to present one idea at a time until all of the ideas have been presented. This can be followed by something that resembles brainstorming – ideas might generate other ideas and they should be discussed. But unlike brainstorming, in this discussion, it is okay to (respectfully) suggest problems with ideas.
  4. Summarize each of the ideas discussed in the meeting and make sure every participant has a copy of the notes. Give the team another week to evaluate all of the ideas presented, and come back with a ranked list of the best five ideas they have. Explain that the best ideas might be new, or a combination of ideas. In addition, ask the team to consider the pluses and minuses of each idea.
  5. Score the ideas based on the rankings of the group prior to a final meeting. In the final meeting, consolidate the lists of pluses and minuses, ensuring that everyone has a chance to discuss them.

At this point, you will have given everyone a chance to come up with ideas, discuss ideas, and consider the qualities of each idea. You might not have an easy decision to make at this point, but making a decision is a different subject.

This approach will take longer than a single brainstorming session, both in duration and in the effort invested by every individual. But I started with the assumption that the problem you are facing is both challenging and important. For a problem like that, it might be worth side-stepping some of the problems of brainstorming.

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