Brainstorming Is Overrated and Outdated: We Need a New Method

Brainstorming Is Overrated and Outdated: We Need a New Method

Everybody sitting around the beautiful Agar wood table was supposed to contribute and let all the creative stuff surface and pop out. They even provided an extra-large whiteboard, like the ones in boardrooms on TV shows, in case there were so many great suggestions. Then the CEO told everybody to refrain from judging anyone's ideas, to be as wild as possible, to think of as many ideas as possible–quantity preferred, freely combine ideas that had been gushed out, and finally, to suggest the one thing that would most improve a contributed opinion, which is all standard brainstorming rules. And so, what is the consensus idea? "Bring back cassette tapes!"

During the middle of the twentieth century, advertising executive Alex Osborn introduced the brainstorming technique in his books, “Your Creative Power” and “Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.” Osborn firmly believed brainstorming resulted in quality ideas. (Put into action in his agency, BBDO (Osborn is the "O" in BBDO), he saw results; however, dear reader, please keep in mind that advertising agency professionals tend to be creative thinkers at the outset.) Brainstorming persists today as a popular tool and is even incorporated into other processes, for example, design thinking, which encourages you to focus on the people you're aiming at or IDEO's innovation process. However, IDEO modified Osborn's original rules.

However, there are some significant barriers facing teams who employ brainstorming as a solo tool, for instance, a group member's fear of suggesting poor ideas and being silently judged (because, remember, no judgments are to be said aloud if you follow the rules), or a resulting mediocre idea due to group consensus or groupthink, a pattern of thought characterized by conformity among a like-minded group. 

Research indicates that brainstorming in a group results in poorer ideas than when the same number of individuals work alone. There are many other reasons, for example, the group's makeup. Is everyone equally innovative or imaginative? Results tend to favor a median, diluting the more creative suggestions. Assembling an inclusive and diverse group? Does the group interact well? Does the group persist when the going is challenging? Does everyone feel comfortable contributing? Often extroverts dominate, or someone might steamroll others. With too much influence from others, it's challenging to innovate in a group.

On Twitter, designer, educator, and creative director Brian Collins tweeted: "Design Rules 49: No trained creative person will ever ask for a group ‘brainstorming' session. Non-creative people will all the time. Watch." Other esteemed creative professionals need more faith in this tool, as well.

Most professionals need help generating a solid idea. So instead, they either offer up tired or reused ones or create many ideas, but they are only worth pursuing. But here's the main issue, as I see it. How do you generate an idea from nothing? How does any individual or group form the idea? They're supposed to throw out formed or partially-formed ideas, but how do they know how to formulate opinions, to begin with? And finally, what separates a good idea from a bad one? 

In an ideal economy with global competition, learning how to produce the kind of ideas people can't turn down is critical. A great idea presents a well-formulated thought or action plan that spurs growth, change, advancement, adaptation, or new insight. Worthwhile ideas move the needle; they change the playing field altogether.

We need a system to help people consistently produce worthwhile ideas by becoming imaginative thinkers better equipped to compete and grow in a global economy. So here it is–the Three Gs for generating a fruitful idea:

  1. Goal: What you want to achieve
  2. Gap: The underdeveloped area or void that your idea fills
  3. Gain: The overall benefits of your idea

As Broadway choreographer/director Lorin Latarro (Waitress, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Is There Still Sex in the City? among many other works) points out in the foreword of “The New Art of Ideas,” "And then, the why of it all. Why is this idea a worthwhile pursuit? What does the world gain from this idea? What is the idea's additive value? These are all worthy questions for the creator to ponder. As an artist, I always ask why—and I am always searching for a story that brings something special to an audience: to learn, to receive, to question, to observe."

People tend to think of a goal as the means to an end. However, a plan is only one entry point into producing a fully-formed idea. And it's only one entry point into the Three Gs ideation system.

Some start ideation by noticing a gap, a missing piece that fills a need—an area not yet explored or underexplored, a question not yet asked, or a population not addressed or underserved. A gap can occur in any discipline; in any form; for any people or population sample of any size, type, or location; for any system, in any situation, in any area, and for any conditions (such as weather, extreme heat, or cold). For example, having worked for several leading financial institutions, Gaurav Sharma saw how hard it is for most people to understand their retirement accounts. So he decided to build a company that makes it more accessible. With Chris Phillips, he co-founded Capitalize. Capitalize will manage your 401(k) rollover when you change jobs, so you don't lose your money. Sharma noticed a gap.

Brother and sister Ahmed Rahim and Reem Hassani aimed to bring the dried lime tea they enjoyed during their childhood in Baghdad, Iraq, to the United States. They believe in the healing power of tea. The tea symbolizes hospitality and community (Numi means "citrus" in Arabic). With so many tea brands already available in the United States, what gap has this passionate duo filled? Not only have Rahim and Hassani introduced little-known herbs and teas to the United States, but they are advancing human rights around the globe. There are considerable gains from their business, which brings clean drinking water and sanitation to tea-farming communities, ensures fair wages and safe working conditions, benefits the communities of the farmers who grow the tea, and reduces plastic waste, among other sustainable outcomes. Their passion and vision drove their goal; they saw a gap and achieved several gains.

Or to start ideating, you can start with a gain, a benefit for individuals, society, creatures, or our planet. Disney Pixar's goal for its film Inside Out was to portray a range of emotions so that children could easily understand their feelings. The film's gain is helping children identify different emotions to help them better understand what they're feeling. The film also can help parents recognize, accept, and validate their child's feelings. The film's message is that emotions are essential and need to be recognized and validated. That message filled a critical gap in children's film entertainment and the emotional lives of children. The story goes like this: Through the interplay of emotions—joy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness—eleven-year-old Riley, the main character, is striving to achieve emotional balance while navigating a move to a new city, house, and school. 

Whether your goal is to design a new device or structure, write a story, create a digital game aimed at seniors (a definite gap), sell more products, open a restaurant, build a crowd-sourced furniture delivery app, build a better whatsit, determine if your goal will fill a gap and if there is a gain for people or the planet. I advocate thinking of gains as the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

If brainstorming works for you, by all means, keep at it. However, if you find that tool that could be more enjoyable or lead to mediocre ideas, try the Three Gs, which demystifies the process of practical creativity and hands you the key to unlocking your creative potential. 

After all, we all want badass ideas, not bad ones.

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