Is Brainstorming Pointless?

This originally appeared in Innovation Excellence.

I just saw this New Yorker piece about the futility of brainstorming. Over the years, I’ve facilitated well over a hundred sessions ranging from small workgroups to big, executive-laden festivals. Like anything else, it can work, but isn’t the right tool for every situation. It’s also not the way to get the best from certain personality types. Brilliant introverts and hyper-stimulated extroverts will work together about as well as calamari cheesecake.

Too often, I’ve caught people trying to use brainstorming as a substitute/short cut for actual work. Just as Twinkies and Pringles look a lot like food, but aren’t, brainstorming creates a flurry of activity that to the untrained eye, looks a lot like work, but isn’t.

I find brainstorming works best when:

  1. It’s part of a larger, necessary and urgent initiative, instead of a standalone tack-on with unclear or unrealistic expectations.
  2. There is strong accountability and ownership for follow-ups (e.g. heads will roll if X isn’t launched by June).
  3. Insights are gathered from the outside world, particularly from observed behaviors rather than surveys or studies, which are often methodologically flawed. Using insights as a springboard – and engaging participants in gathering those insights, reduces the chances of myopic, uninformed discussions. This should keep Bob from Marketing from once again, bringing up his dumb idea about edible packaging.
  4. Groups are small, creative, apolitical, have existing rapport and some stake in the success of the overall project. (If for some reason un-creative, overly judgmental, or negative people must be invited, just check their calendars first. Find weeks they’re on vacation or inspecting the new factory in Budapest).

In the last few years, I’ve probably talked more people out of brainstorming than into it. You probably should too. Brainstorming can’t replace insights gathering, research, analysis, experimentation, and individual will and creativity. If real outcomes (not political showmanship) are the driving force behind an NPD/innovation effort, you’ll often achieve better results with a small team of creative individuals than a large group putting on Brainstorming, The Musical. As always, the prescription should fit the ailment. (Or, punishment fit the crime!)

Most importantly, no one should look to brainstorming as some kind of panacea. It should be one of many tools in the toolkit. The best analogy is online dating. I’ve seen plenty of people hinge their entire love life on their poor avatar, then get sad or despondent when the tsunami of supermodels never comes. In innovation, as in love, it’s best to engage with the world, meet lots of people, and mix it up a little. That way, you’re not sitting in some depressing room, wondering why your tool is such a colossal disappointment.

What are your thoughts and experiences?