The Innovation Blog

Is Brainstorming Broken?

Posted by Creative Realities on June 7, 2011

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Last month, I attended the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston, which in itself was a great learning experience (see: FEI 2011, for more info). The second day of the event was kicked off by a thought-provoking keynote by Jonah Lehrer. A Rhodes scholar, author, and contributing editor at Wired Magazine, Jonah is an all-star. His polished presentation focused on shedding some light on understanding how our brains work, bringing a welcome change from the case histories of the previous presentations (not that there is anything wrong with those).

He made one statement though that sent a bit of a murmur through the crowd and stuck in my mind, and on which I want to focus this post. Likely a controversial opinion amongst the FEI crowd full of innovation practitioners, in touting the power of the relaxed state of mind, Jonah suggested that brainstorming doesn’t actually work, and, further, in fact inhibits our imagination – thus, the title of this post, and the question I want to put to you.

His argument is that our attention in a non-relaxed state is too occupied with things other than coming up with a good idea to indeed come up with a good idea. He extends this to a brainstorming session, suggesting that the scheduled, predictable nature of such a meeting not only hampers creativity but situationally brings with it demands on our attention that we won’t be able to shake (e.g. What do I have after this? What’s for lunch? I have to respond to that email…).

This seems to be true if we are considering the value of a single idea created on-demand (as in a brainstorm) versus a single idea created in a relaxed state of mind. However, if you have 15 people in a room operating at 60% attention capacity, versus one at 100% (or as close as it is truly possible to reach), you counteract the effect of the distractions. Furthermore, in a group brainstorm setting you have a multiplicative effect stemming from the ability of the members to build on one another’s ideas. Brainstorms are so powerful because you get not just a single idea but as many as time and energy allow.

In truth, Jonah is undeniably right in that a relaxed mind has a greater likelihood of producing a valuable idea. What we all know is that the odds of that happening, even at the highest level of relaxation (the most attention “available” to be devoted to free ideation), are extremely low. Realistically, a point change in attention level does not linearly correlate with a point change in number of good ideas. Now, perhaps the new question is whether there is an effective and efficient way to get a group of people close to the ideal relaxed state in a brainstorm setting.

I don’t want Jonah’s main point to be absent from this post. He says that the ability to strategically allocate attention is a skill highly correlated with success. Do this and you are positioned not only to be more innovative but more effective in general. He closed by offering, “Our self-knowledge of how the brain works is very useful knowledge that can help us make it work a little better.” I couldn’t agree more.

So, what do you think, is brainstorming broken?


- Clay Maxwell (@bizinovationist)


If you are interested in my coverage (and more) from the FEI conference, see the posts from the week at the FEI Blog here.

Topics: creativity, Clay Maxwell, Relaxed Concentration, Jonah Lehrer, FEI2011, Innovation, brainstorming