Brainstorming was developed by Alex F. Osborn in 1939 to enhance the ability of work groups to solve problems creatively. The participants in his early groups called his process "brainstorming" because it seemed to them that they were using their brains "to storm a creative problem and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective." According to David Whetten and Kim Cameron, there are four cardinal principles that govern effective brainstorming processes:
- No evaluation of the effectiveness of any given alternative is to be undertaken while the group is generating alternatives. Evaluation of alternatives must come at a later stage in the problem-solving process.
- The leader of the group must place no parameters upon the group regarding what kinds of alternatives or solutions should be suggested; in fact, the team leader should encourage the group to come up with novel ideas that normally would not receive consideration in the organization.
- The quantity of ideas should initially take precedence over the quality of ideas; that is, the leader should push the group to produce a large number of ideas irrespective of their quality.
- Participants should feel free to add to or modify previous ideas proposed by others; it is often the case that marginal ideas that are added upon or altered in some fashion become transformed into powerful solutions. It should be emphasized that ideas do not belong to the individual who presents them, but to the group.
When generating ideas, it is best to have the members of a group first generate ideas individually and silently rather than shouting out ideas as an entire group. Research indicates that by having people work individually, they generate a greater number of unique ideas than when brainstorming as a group. After individual brainstorming, all ideas can be shared, and further brainstorming as a group can be used.
What topics should be addressed in brainstorming sessions? While theoretically it is possible to brainstorm around any topic, Osborn believed that the problem or topic should be specific rather than general; that is, it should be narrow enough so that the participants can easily comprehend its nature and target their responses to its solution. Also, multiple problems, such as brainstorming about what a new product should be named, how it should be packaged, and how it should be advertised, should not be set before a brainstorming group. The problems should be separated, and brainstormed in separate meetings that are devoted to one of the aforementioned topics.
Osborn believed the ideal size for a brainstorming group was between 5 and 10 people; however, he also contended that with the right kind of leader, large numbers of people of up to 100 could successfully participate in brainstorming sessions. However, research indicates that larger groups generally do not generate more ideas than small groups.
In order to facilitate success, leaders of brainstorming sessions should do the following:
- Facilitators should teach the principles and objectives of brainstorming to the group before beginning the brainstorming session. Unless all group members understand these rules, the brainstorming effort will fail.
- Facilitators must enforce the rules during the brainstorming session. Inevitably, people will begin evaluating suggestions during the "generation" phase of brainstorming or violate one of the other principles. When such violations occur, the leader must reteach the principle in question that has been violated, and relaunch the brainstorming process in the group.
- Facilitators must ensure that the ideas are listed so that they can be referred to later when the group analyzes the ideas that it has generated. Idea records are often kept on flip charts, but an individual can record the information and the results photocopied and distributed to the participants as well.
- Facilitators should try to encourage all group members to get involved in the session and contribute ideas. Some group members may be reluctant to share their thoughts, which could lead to one or two participants dominating the session. A good facilitator finds ways to draw out ideas from all group members.
- Facilitators need to keep the group focused and prevent participants from getting discouraged. Typically, participants offer several ideas at the beginning of a session; often these are the more obvious alternative solutions to the problem at hand. After these initial ideas are offered, the session might get bogged down as the quantity of ideas subsides. Facilitators should assist the group to push past this initial stage and continue working to come up with other alternatives, because it is at this point where truly creative solutions to problems may be offered.
- Facilitators need to be able to restate and distill poorly articulated ideas in a way that clarifies without altering their meaning.
After a large set of ideas has been generated, they must then be evaluated and culled according to their efficacy. At this point, a large number of options are open to the leader in terms of how the ideas should be evaluated. However, generally it is advisable that the group who generated the ideas be accountable for evaluating them as well. During the analysis stage the leader must facilitate an evaluation of the ideas that the group generated. As the listed ideas are subtracted, merged, and refined in group discussion, it is common for a more comprehensive solution to the problem to be produced than what could have been generated individually or in other group problem-solving processes.
Face-to-face brainstorming sessions may not always generate a large number of creative ideas for a variety of reasons. One problem with face-to-face sessions is called production blocking, which is basically anything that prevents a group member from verbalizing his or her ideas as they occur. Common production blocks are forgetting and distractions. Another problem with face-to-face sessions is evaluation apprehension, which simply means that individuals are afraid to vocalize their ideas. Evaluation apprehension might be caused because individuals are reluctant to share novel, but incompletely developed, ideas. Group members might also be afraid of how others will react if they suggest unpopular or politically sensitive alternatives. Another potential problem with face-to-face brain-storming is social loafing, which occurs when individuals put forth less effort on a group project than they do working alone.
Electronic brainstorming sessions may reduce some of these problems. In online or network settings, participants can simultaneously contribute ideas, and can usually do so anonymously. Anonymity may make it more likely that individuals will contribute a larger number of creative alternatives. In fact, empirical research suggests that electronic sessions are generally more effective than face-to-face sessions in terms of the number of alternative ideas generated.
Although the anonymity offered by electronic brainstorming sessions may reduce the negative impact of some of the problems associated with face-to-face sessions, other research suggests that social loafing might still be a problem. One study published in the Journal of Management Information Systems found that allowing participants in electronic sessions to view and compare their participation rates against those of others in the group (e.g., a tally of how many ideas were suggested by each person) increased individuals' contributions of ideas, as everyone could readily see who was not participating much. In this study, electronic idea forums that allowed social comparison were the most productive, followed by anonymous electronic forums. Face-to-face sessions were the least productive in terms of the quantity of alternative solutions generated.
BRAINSTORMING AS CREATIVE DECISION MAKING
Because of its emphasis on group participation and creativity, brainstorming may also be seen as a tool for creative decision making. Creative decision making is a group decision-making technique in which group members attempt to generate as many alternative solutions as possible for a given problem. It is one of a number of decision-making tools that are used to ensure consideration of a diverse set of alternative solutions. Other common decision-making techniques include the nominal group technique and the Delphi technique.
Ditkoff, Mitchell. "Ten Skills for Brainstorming: Breakthrough Thinking." Journal for Quality and Participation, November/December 1998, 302.
Ivancevich, John M., Robert Konopaske, and Michael T. Matteson. Organizational Behavior and Management, 7th ed. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Jones, Gareth R., Jennifer M. George, and Charles W.L. Hill. Contemporary Management, 2nd edition. Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Osborn, Alex F. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. New York: Scribner, 1953.
Shepherd, Morgan M., et al. "Invoking Social Comparison to Improve Electronic Brainstorming: Beyond Anonymity." Journal of Management Information Systems 12, no. 3 (1996): 15568.
Whetten, David A., and Kim S. Cameron. Developing Management Skills. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.
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