Brainstorming More Effectively

February 15, 2023By Views

By Dave Wendland, for Forbes Agency Council, as appeared on

The origin of the term we commonly refer to as “brainstorming” was first introduced by Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Osborn and published in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.

Brainstorming, a process to foster creativity, was once touted as a fantastic way for groups to generate innovative ideas. In today’s fast-paced and often remote workplace, the question typically asked is whether or not brainstorming is still an effective approach to ideation and innovation.

This was one topic discussed during a “Fostering Innovation” executive roundtable session I hosted at the onset of the pandemic. The following views were among those expressed by the group of assembled corporate leaders:

• The term “innovation” has always been a bit nebulous. Genuine differences exist between iterative change and breakthrough transformation.

• The creation of a new product or service can get messy, requiring ad hoc input from different people with diverse experiences.

• A clearly stated purpose as to why you are innovating is imperative. Also, it requires a shared definition of the innovation process and what behaviors are expected.

• An innovative mindset requires no-holds-barred creativity and forward thinking. The team must be open to freely collaborating, testing and making mistakes, and trying again.

Brainstorming is commonly a free flow of ideas during which participants produce as many solutions or concepts as possible without criticism or judgment. The session fosters creativity and generates out-of-the-box thinking. When managed well, it encourages people to commit to the final slate of solutions because they played an active role in dreaming them up.

Here’s a case in point: After I delivered a keynote address on the state of the industry at a client’s annual partner meeting, the general manager of the company asked me to conduct a breakout ideation session about how the direction of the industry applied to participants’ products and marketing approaches. (Thank goodness for my years of improvisational comedy and fearless approach to being put on the spot.) When faced with such a daunting ad hoc assignment, I immediately developed a strategy to conduct this brainstorming exercise. I had to consider:

• What will the structure of the session be?

• How many members should be in each breakout group?

• Which topics will be explored?

• Where will this be conducted and for what time frame?

• How will the results of the breakouts be shared?

The good news is that we had a robust discussion with eight groups of 10 delving into key issues that directly affected each of their company’s product(s), market, audience, competition and innovation, among others. Afterward, one spokesperson from each group shared their key takeaway and recommendation. The result? The general manager could not believe how engaged everyone was and applauded the energy that the participants exuded. Ultimately, he thanked me for one of the most productive exercises he has ever participated in. He shared that this was going to become their blueprint for upcoming strategic planning meetings.

Brainstorming cannot be fabricated; it has to occur organically. The key ingredients—as demonstrated in my example above—include three elements: shared goals, open exchanges and executive support.businesspeople brainstorming

Sharing this story reminded me of another topic we discussed during my executive roundtable. A dialogue ensued among the group about whether in-person brainstorming is a requirement for quality results. And, not unlike numerous other opinions about the value of brainstorming, was hotly debated with countless examples where groups were assembled with less-than-stellar outcomes.

On the topic of electronically mediated brainstorming sessions, a 1993 study conducted by Gallupe and Cooper revealed that electronically mediated brainstorming actually generated higher quality ideas than face-to-face brainstorming and removed many of the common obstacles of traditional brainstorming techniques. In this research, people doing brainstorming typed their ideas into their computer, which also displayed other people’s ideas at the same time. Although not specifically cited as part of the research, I can only imagine that electronic brainstorming also removed bias and the risk of silencing some due to dominant participants or the hierarchy of an organization.

Another twist on the electronic brainstorming formula is called “brainwriting.” In contrast to electronic brainstorming and suitable for in-person gatherings, team members sit together and write down their ideas on Post-it notes. A study conducted by Nicholas Michinov in 2012, which compared brainwriting and electronic brainstorming, found that the latter produced the most non-redundant new ideas.

With new environments, remote workplaces and time-starved participants, the emergence of digital brainstorming apps should come as no surprise. And there are a multitude to consider with advantages and shortcomings associated with each.

Brainstorming remains one of the most valuable techniques a company can use to unlock creativity. If the group is prepared and focused, brainstorming can be quite effective. The key is to keep ideas flowing and not follow one particular train of thought ad nauseum. The goal should be the generation of a number of different ideas leading to the exploration of a handful that bubble to the top in more detail. But remember, brainstorming only works when the participants don’t feel judged or if emotions are high. Choose wisely who will be a part of these sessions.