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Chances are your last (online) brainstorm session was not a true one. As it happens, there is a complete lack of understanding about brainstorming. Put a few people together and say, “come up with ideas,” and we then call it a brainstorming session. Which is not what a brainstorm entails. What has been written about brainstorming is often wrong. It seems, moreover, that the researchers who claim that brainstorming is not effective do not really know what brainstorming involves.
In this column, I am going back to the source of brainstorming and explain why brainstorming is worthy of our appreciation.

Back to the source

The idea of brainstorming was masterminded by Alex Faickney Osborn (1888-1966). Osborn was a classic case of ‘The American Dream’. He paid for his (psychology) studies himself with all sorts of side jobs. He was fired from his first job only to later become the director of the BBDO advertising agency in New York. The O stands for Osborn. BBDO employed over 1000 people in his time. The company still exists today.

Applied Imagination

Do an online search for “Osborn” and “brainstorming” and chances are you will be referred to the book ‘Applied Imagination’. I bought Applied Imagination to find out how Osborn described brainstorming. So, back to the source. And how does Osborn interpret brainstorming? He doesn’t! He does mention the word, but he uses it as if the reader already understands what it means.


I was convinced that Applied Imagination would clarify what brainstorming is. After all, it is mentioned in all kinds of articles on the Internet. This is a typical of the misconceptions about brainstorming and Osborn. What is written about it, is often incorrect.
Much to my chagrin, I bought another book. Osborn’s earlier work: ‘Your Creative Power’ published in 1948.

Your Creative Power

If you have a thing for creativity: buy it and read it. Osborn writes like a true American from the 40s and 50s of the last century. He writes passionately about creativity as the means to end the Cold War. He writes about women who can also be creative because they have to come up with something different to cook every night. Hilarious and tragic at the same time.
And so, what brainstorming really encompasses.

Chapter 33: How to organize a squad to create ideas

Osborn devotes one chapter to explaining brainstorming. In 9 ½ pages, Osborn provides:

  • criteria for brainstorming:
    o type of people: ‘group leader’ & ‘brainstormers’
    o subjects that are suitable
    o procedural rules that the brainstormers have to follow
  • what makes and breaks a brainstorming session
  • why brainstorming works.
    I will say a few words about these points and then outline what the science is regarding them.
    The people who take part in a brainstorm
    5 to 10 people in the squad is a good number of people. (Women are also allowed to participate, great eh).
    The group leader will make sure that there is the right ‘spirit’ and that the brainstormers follow the rules.
    Participants do not need to have knowledge of the topic. As a matter of fact, knowledge makes it harder for people to follow the brainstorming rules.
    The kind of problems that are suitable for brainstorming
    ‘ […] the problem should be specific rather than general – it should be narrowed down so that the brainstormers can shoot their ideas at a single target.’ (Osborn, 1948; p. 268).
    Raise your hand if you think you have ever brainstormed about a complex problem. That just can’t be done, according to Osborn.

The ‘simple ground rules’

The Golden Rules of Brainstorming. Odds are that you are familiar with them. They come in many variations, hereby quoted literally as they appear in the book (Osborn, 1948; p.269):

  • Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas will be withheld until the next day.
  • “Wildness” is welcomed. The crazier the idea, the better; it’s easier to tone down than to think up.
  • Quantity is wanted. The more ideas we pile up, the more likelihood of winners.
  • Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of our own, let’s suggest how another’s idea can be turned into a better idea; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea.

What makes or breaks a brainstorming session?

‘The spirit of a brainstorm session can make or break it.’ (Osborn, 1948 p.270). Brainstormers have to feel good about the brainstorming session. This is how you can tell if the brainstorming session went well. That, in combination with the number of ideas that they came up with.

Why does brainstorming work?

According to Osborn, it is mainly down to rule number 1: ‘[brainstorming] concentrates solely on creative thinking and excludes the discouragement and critisicm which so often cramp imagination.’ (Osborn, 1948, p.272).
Of course, the key question is: is it true what Osborn has written?

The science behind brainstorming

By and large, the conclusion is drawn that brainstorming works no better than when people come up with ideas on their own. The reasons for this tend to vary and can be read about all over the Internet. Take advantage of that, but be sure to be critical.
As a university staff member, I have access to the scientific articles behind what you read on the Internet. I get incredibly frustrated with the experiments in scientific articles about brainstorming. There is always something wrong with the experiment which prevents any real brainstorming.
Case in point.

Study by Yale

One of the oldest studies on the workings of brainstorming comes from Yale. Taylor, Berry and Block (1958) researched whether brainstorming facilitated creativity or not. They came to the conclusion that people who brainstormed on their own came up with more and even better ideas.
In the experiment, participants were told what brainstorming entails, what the brainstorming rules are, and who they were going to be brainstorming for – in this case, the Office of Naval Research. The brainstormers were asked to do their best.
‘Finally, subjects were specially asked to do as well as they could, and it was impressed upon them that the success of the experiment was contingent such effort.’ (Taylor, et al., 1958).
No real brainstorming took place in this experiment for the following reasons:
Being told what to do is not the same as being able to do it.
First, explaining brainstorming rules to participants does not mean that participants are also able to follow the rules. Osborn does write that basically everyone can brainstorm. In doing so, he goes rather easy on the fact that deferring a judgment is underestimated in terms of how difficult that is to do in practice. More on that later.
Additional pressure on participants
Secondly, by giving gravitas to the client and emphasizing that the participants had to do their best. The studies thereby put pressure on the participants. This makes ‘deferring judgment’ that more difficult.
This extra information can cause lead to more peer pressure (as in, “oh dear, soon the other participants will think my ideas are stupid”). This manifests itself more naturally in a group than when you brainstorm on your own … duh.

The right spirit?

Thirdly, no attention is given anywhere to the creation of the right kind of spirit in these groups. I call it ‘The Brave Space’. The right kind of spirit ensures that participants dare to share their ideas, become enthusiastic and rely on each other’s energy.

The number of brainstormers

The fourth is that, according to Osborn, 5-10 people is the best number for a brainstorm group. There were four people in a group in the experiment.

The group leader

Fifthly, the group leader in the experiment had to divide their attention between two groups. In my experience, the quality of your supervision declines when you have multiple groups under your care. After all, you simply cannot hear every rule violation. Of course, my experience is n=1 and I am not going to generalize.
I think this is a typical example of the research on brainstorming: the experiment is flawed. What was sound in this experiment was the choice of brainstorming topics. They were specific. Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves to what extent there was a real case of brainstorming in the groups and by the individuals in this experiment.
This does not mean that I want to show that brainstorming always works and is wonderful. For example, we can ask ourselves if specific questions in our complex society still have any relevance at all. I do want to show that we should be critical of the criticism of brainstorming and not write off brainstorming as a technique that does not work. We learn something very important when we brainstorm.

The art of deferring judgment

When you are able to defer judgment, you become better at empathizing, listening and observing. When you are able to defer judgment, you learn to play with ideas without having to necessarily accept them. As I said, this is really not so easy as it may sound. Go ahead and try to defer judgment when the stakes are high. When a lot depends on the outcome. That’s tough! Precisely for situations like this, I don’t really need to explain how incredibly important this skill is.
Then I have not even touched upon postponing judgment yourself and your own ideas. Perhaps this is even more difficult. When you are able to defer judging your own ideas, a world of imagination will open up to you. Imagination is the first step to change.
Applied Imagination is what he titled one of his books. The longer I think about it, the more brilliant I think the title is. Applied Imagination hits the nail on the head, we basically cannot have enough of this.
During a brainstorming session, we are made aware of our own (pre)conceptions and are trained to delay making judgments. This is an exercise in all of the above. If this process takes place collectively, it creates a bond with the situation and shared visions can be formed. That seems to me to be extremely useful.
Hopefully next time you will approach any brainstorming that you do in a different way.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Willemijn Brouwer, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.