The term brainstorming was popularised by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. The technique was something he’d been using during his time leading the BBDO agency, and brainstorming has become the default term for any creative ideation technique.
I say unfortunately because it’s unfortunate that brainstorming is inherently a very poor technique – yet this is the method that most businesses still use to identify new opportunities.
What’s fascinating to me is that the first empirical test on the effectiveness of brainstorming was undertaken at Yale University as far back as 1958. Forty-eight students were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles while 48 students worked by themselves on the same puzzles. And the results were astonishingly revealing.
The individual students came up with twice as many solutions as the ones using brainstorming and their solutions were deemed more feasible and effective by adjudicators. In effect, brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group – it actually suppressed it, making each individual in a group less creative.
And many more research studies on the brainstorming process since then have found similar results. Just putting someone in a room on their own allows them to produce a greater quantity and quality of ideas than that same person would do in a brainstorming group.
Perhaps the reason that Osborn deemed brainstorming to be effective was that at least people were focusing on using a process to think rather than just executing the first idea that came into their head. If Osborn had simply encouraged those creative people use individual thinking techniques, then perhaps business today would be using more contemporary processes rather than relying on an ineffective process that is 60 years old and way beyond the needs of today’s complex issues!
Thinking about thinking…
Earlier this month US President Barack Obama launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. This programme will accelerate the development of new tools to comprehensively map the activity of the human brain. The White House claims that the project will not only revolutionise our understanding of the human mind but also uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury, and Obama has requested US$100 million in federal funding for the initiative.
Now I truly believe this will be money very well spent, but imagine if we spent a similar amount on our thinking health – the way we think and the effectiveness of our thinking. Helping people to think differently about the issues we face in all aspects of our lives. Maybe the tensions we face in our lives are caused by us trying to fit old ways of thinking and old solutions to ever more complex problems. Perhaps there’s tremendous value to be gained for everyone if we all understood how to think more creatively – and not just those of us in the profession of creative thinking and design.
Imagine the value that we’d deliver as a society if we had $100 million in funding in this area…