Beyond Brainstorming

Growth companies are looking for better ways to generate ideas that create value

Ever since advertising executive Alex Osborn introduced “brainstorming” to the corporate lexicon 65 years ago, it has been used as a generic term for group creativity and viewed as a panacea for organizations in search of innovation and growth. The premise was that problems are best solved when “taken by storm” by the unrestricted, free-associating input of a group. Participants are supposed to generate as many ideas as possible, firing off uncensored notions, unusual approaches and odd perspectives like human sparklers, all the while deferring judgment and consideration of constraints. This idealization of brainstorming persists today, dovetailing neatly with contemporary culture’s unquestioning faith in all things social and collaborative.

The problem is, it has been clear almost since the inception of the idea that brainstorming does not work. In “59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot,” author Richard Wiseman wrote, “Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and biased assessments of the situation. ... People are more creative away from the crowd.”

The first empirical test of Osborn’s technique, conducted at Yale in 1958, showed that students thinking on their own came up with twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and those solutions were deemed more feasible and effective. Numerous studies since then have come to essentially the same conclusion. Among the most recent, researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M found that creativity is stifled in brainstorming groups. “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and leads to suggesting ideas that mimic those of brainstorming partners,” explained lead researcher Nicholas Kohn. “Thus, you become less creative.” Other studies have pointed to similar behavioral and cognitive impediments: “Social blocking” occurs when the very act of one person speaking has a dampening effect on the thought processes of others; “social loafing” or “free riding” occurs when individuals tend to cede the stage to more active, aggressive members; social anxiety and fear of rejection are common limitations to brainstorming.

Researchers seeking ways to improve the model have generally concluded that brainstorming works better when it is less voluble and more rigorous. In a forthcoming article in The Journal of Product Innovation Management, professors from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Babson College in Massachusetts assert that high-performing teams engage in comparatively fewer but more-disciplined brainstorming sessions, usually complemented by other ideation techniques such as prototyping. Another recent study from INSEAD and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that brainstorming is more effective when individuals generate their ideas independently, before meeting in a group.

Findings like these have led to variations on the brainstorming theme. Former McKinsey consultants Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne developed the concept of “brainsteering,” in which discussion is guided by tightly focused questions. Participants are selected less for their unique perspectives and more for their knowledge and experience regarding the problems at hand and the goals and capabilities of the organization. Peter Heslin, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas, introduced “brainwriting,” in which participants are also asked to address specific questions, but on their own and in writing. Each person’s ideas are then passed around among the other group members for annotation, critique and embellishment, again in writing. This may go on for several rounds before any group discussion takes place. “Electronic brainstorming”—the exchange of ideas via a variety of devices and platforms, as done in Web-based, open-innovation projects—has proven to be successful because it combines elements of individual and group ideation.

For the past decade, perhaps the most touted approach to generating ideas in organizations has been “design thinking.” While managers have traditionally operated using the scientific method, analyzing a problem and deriving from that the parameters of a solution, designers start by imagining a desired condition, then working to define the ways that it can be achieved. In an organizational context, design thinking is essentially a highly process-oriented approach to brainstorming. To imagine new products or market opportunities, design thinkers use modeling tools and techniques to understand the customer’s total experience—problems, values, aspirations, social networks—then seek ways to optimize that experience. “Design thinking imbues innovation activities with a human-centered ethos,” said Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, a consulting firm that focuses on design and innovation. “[It is] powered by direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives.”

One of the foremost exemplars of design thinking has been Nike, the perennially growth-oriented $24 billion maker of sporting apparel and equipment that tops the Fast Company 2013 list of the 50 most-innovative companies. For years, Nike has sought to capture or even predict the zeitgeist of the marketplace by doing what it calls “deep dives” into the aesthetics of disparate subcultures, from cars to hip-hop to origami, seeking inspiration for new Nike markets and products. The company’s well-known “Innovation Kitchen” is essentially a cross-functional SWAT team of programmers, engineers and designers—professional innovators whose job is to continually ask “What if?” and draw consumers and athletes into an iterative process of making it happen.

Some, however, view the process orientation of design thinking in business as a bastardization of creativity. Bruce Nussbaum, a former assistant managing editor for Business Week who was once one of design thinking’s biggest advocates, now believes it has been turned into “a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivers, at best, incremental change and innovation.”

Others argue that is precisely the point. “Any manager will tell you that design thinking in business is not about creativity,” said Jeanne Liedtka, author of “Designing for Growth” and a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Businesses [need] to produce a stable and predictable stream of products, services and profits. Creativity is only a way station on the route to what really matters: creating new value for real human beings. If we have to bring simplicity and linearity to the design process in order to make [businesses] comfortable enough to try something new, then so be it.”

Roy Luebke, head of innovation and strategic growth consulting at Genedge Alliance, thinks there’s still work to be done on that score. “The driver for growing businesses in the coming years is to deliver not just more new things, but more relevant new things to the market. We are a long way from having repeatable, learnable innovation processes [that will do that] embedded within organizations.”