Brainstorming Doesn’t Produce Ideas, People Do.

Been reading up on some science papers about brainstorming and creativity. In summing up the body of work around brainstorming, prof Adrian Furnham is quite clear in his conclusions:

“People must be insane to use brainstorming groups”

Brainstorms in Group are an ineffective way of producing quality ideas. Brainstorms are called “dumb”, “stupid” and a “waste of time” by the experts.

Yet, the fact that Brainstorming is still in use, is because it serves another function altogether:

  • Good for the team dynamics
  • Easiest way to get everybody on board in the choices made
  • You do have some results, all be it superficial, without sweating it 2 hard

In short: it makes you FEEL good.

Oh, people who facilitate or make use of brainstorms will claim that the research by Furnham e.a. is inconclusive, since they do it “differently”.

For example, they claim they have strategies to eliminate Group Think or the Halo Effect of hierarchy or any other biases like Endowment Effect (e.g. people like the ideas they came up with best ; instead of a possible better idea yet to be found).

Now, the burden of evidence is in the camp of those who still use Brainstorms in Group : they should have A-B tests to back up their claims. Because, there is a real way to do it differently. Without the use of Brainstorm Groups. A more effective way.

If Brainstorm Groups don’t really work, what does?

People create ideas, not Groups. Individuals are really great in coming up with ideas.

They truly are.

Groups and Networks of Experts are great for feedback and improving on someone’s ideas (something Pixar calls “Plussing”), but Groups are not great at creating quality ideas.

Can you think of an Invention or a Novel Concept or a Grand Idea that was created by committee? It’s not like The Solvay Conference would’ve been able to dream up the Theory of Special Relativity. And they were quite a bright group, all together. No : a young punk named Albert thought of it, by himself.

solvay01.jpg(Just love this photo + the Solvay Library is still one of my favorite places in Brussels)

So, enough with the science. People get bored by it so fast. Rather, let’s go on to the day-to-day process.

How to create quality ideas?


FIRST you assemble a CROWD.

Rally a group. Select a team. Yeah, that’s right ! You still want to harness the power of quantity and variety. “Together we know better” et all.

But, you want to use a group in the way CROWDSOURCING uses groups. Not by putting them together in place and time. Not by brainstorming together.

Ideally, you want your crowd to be as DIVERSE as possible. Like, without any common denominator.

Diversity can be a killer for Group Brainstorming, but in Crowd Sourcing it works wonders.

Make an effort there. You will be rewarded later.


THEN you spill out your DREAM.

What’s the goal of this whole episode? What’s the purpose of this undertaking? In other words: you give a briefing.

You do it before any idea creating happens. At least one night before. A couple of days before works as well.

You do it clear. And in writing. You email it. In your email you set the parameters straight. You attach some key words to the ideal result. You are vocal about who it is for. About why this project is important? What’s at stake?

Plus: what you don’t expect. What it shouldn’t be.

Be really clear about what the goal is and what isn’t.

Why you do this at least the night before, is because peoples brains will -without making an effort- already be working on it. You can’t un-think a thought. Once it is in your brain, it starts working. Even when you make no effort.


THEN, on the day you have the team assembled, you go over the briefing once again, but now orally. You put the briefing in bullet points on the board. You answer some questions. When some new parameters or key words come up in that discussion: you write them down.

Don’t let stuff float around in the air. Make them tactile. Put them on the board.

Key now is to turn your goal into SMALLER PROBLEMS.

You don’t want people to come up with a whole new super movie franchise. No, you want them to come up with a new Super Hero. Or a new Force. Or a new Arena. Or a new Genre. Or a new Enemy. Or a new Theme.

The way to solve complex problems is to slice them up in small, less complex problems. Solvable problems.

The way to climb the Mont Ventoux by bike, is to cycle from bend to bend. You don’t sprint to the top. You will fail. Do the best you can, bend after bend after bend. That’s how you reach the top.

Or when I give you an math problem to solve, like (245*11/56) + 1450^2. You will not magically dream up the solution. You will solve it step by step.

Step by step. That’s how you climb mountains. That’s how you solve problems. That’s how you create ideas.


NOW it is time for some IDEA GENERATION.

You pick the first SUB-GOAL or PROBLEM. This is where you would be working on first. Nothing else, just this small problem.

(When by association ideas pop up for other problems or the big picture ; just tell your crowd to make notes, but to keep it to themselves – the time to tell will soon be Nigh)

Now, Idea Generation is like masturbation: it is best kept private. So, you sent your crowd members out of the office.

You sent them on a WALK. Alone.

Silly as it seems, walking increases the quality of idea generating by like a 100%. They measured it:

Be careful to set the bar really high for this assignment. When it comes to quality, VOLUME is magic.

Each and everyone of your crowd, needs to return with like 50 ideas.

(2 ideas per minute – so in a half hour, give or take).

If they have to come up with a new superhero? 50 new super heroes. A new Dramatic Goal? 50 Goals. A new Dramatic Spine for your lead character? 50 Spines.

If they have to come up with a joke about a famous football player for a sketch show ? 50 jokes.

You need a new TV Game Show? Split that up in: 50 ways of replacing points with something else. 50 ways to visualize the score. 50 different “talents” you need to win this show. 50 different “titles” to be won. 50 ways to hosting the questions. 50 ways to get an answer. etc.

They can walk wherever they like. Even on a treadmill. As long as that they are moving about..


Then, let them QUICKLY turn their ideas into visual AGENTS.

Before you gather together again, have your crowd first VISUALIZE their 50 ideas. They need to draw their idea or find a photo for it. Only one word is allowed per page.


“Let’s do a show about HAIR”


NOW is the time to do some PLUSSING.

People present their 50 visualized ideas and everybody that is triggered by one of them, can BETTER them or ADD to the idea.

Notes are taken.

There is still NO JUDGEMENT. There are no good or bad ideas. The only thing you can do is come up with BETTER ones or DIFFERENT ones.


You must be tired by now. In tiers. In tears, maybe. The sheer volume of ideas already ! Damn !

Maybe have some night sleep first. Or lunch or something.

(I would suggest to start really early in the morning – the hours after 14:00 seem like non-fertile by factor 10, based on my anecdotal evidence)

One of the really awful things about Brainstorming is that you have a list of things, without resolve.

So, it’s quite important to FINISH one problem first, before going on to the next one.

Don’t worry – you can always go back and make a different decision.

One way to finish is by letting people GRADE each idea.

Important is to have the FUNCTION laid out clearly for the idea. What must this SOLUTION for this particular PROBLEM entail?

So, you now have 150 different types of Super Hero. But, what is a good Super Hero? What elements/traits does a good Super Hero has? Do you want him to be Totally Original? Or like Totally Recognizable? etc.

Have people GRADE all ideas on function.

Now, the goal down the line is to have people make their own PROTOTYPES. So, they can do their own grading and they keep score for themselves.

When they make the sum of all their grades (per function they give a number between 0 and 5 for each idea), they have to stick with their TOP IDEA.

To make sure, you can have a little competition between their Top Ideas, if you like.


You REPEAT this process with another PROBLEM or SUB-GOAL.

Again, people will have their TOP-IDEA or few TOP IDEAS.

Now they have their TOP SUPER HERO, but also their TOP SUPER ENEMY.

And so on.


ALMOST DONE. Now, everybody makes his own PROTOTYPE.

The whole TV Game Show in a Presentation. Or Concept Trailer. Or Outline.

The new Super Hero Franchise in a Poster. Or One Pager.


A Prototype is a Hypothesis. There is no Proof, yet.

Empirical Research still needs to be done. So – let’s TALK to some people.

Confront them with the Prototypes. What is their emotional response?

What are they looking for in a TV Game Show? Or in a Super Hero Movie?

This way you might discover your ASSUMPTIONS about the FUNCTION of different aspects of you project was totally off base.

E.g. : you don’t have to “like” your Super Hero – you just need to be “fascinated” by him/her.

There are scientific methods to do this. Like Affectiva, or Pupil Dilation, etc.


Or you can measure the oxytocin level in their blood before and after watching a concept trailer.

Or you can just ASK.

(Don’t ask about their opinion -people are really bad at expressing or knowing what they  really think. Just ask about their BEHAVIOR: “would you watch this”? “would you watch this with your family?” “would you allow your kid to watch this?” “would you tape it or watch it live?” “would you rather watch show x?” etc)


Now, COMPARE this result with a Group Brainstorm Session during some lazy afternoon.

As a B-TEST to find out what is the more effective way of creating ideas…


As always, I’m reading stuff, searching for some proof based answers and get inspired by it. I think about this a bit and as a result I came up with this Process. Please, do your own research. Do your own thinking. Do your own testing and trying.

Due Diligence, it is called, I believe.

And of course: any feedback and discussion is very welcome. 

I’m hoping to try this Process out in my day-to-day work to find out if it is ridiculously difficult or maybe ridiculously inspiring. When I have some feedback, I will get back to the topic.




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