Excerpt from “Corporate Crap” – Chapter 16: Brainstorming

Published January 17, 2019

Nothing strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of employees—especially introverted employees—like the mass brainstorm session. A company’s false sense of the creative process manifests itself in these amateur hours. It is based on the mistaken belief that the more uncensored garbage you can put on a flip chart, the better your chances of coming up with some groundbreaking idea.

“When it comes to brainstorming, we pretty much have one option: get everyone in a room and start throwing ideas out there,” say authors Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane in an article in Fast Company. “This generally works well for the extroverts (though some say otherwise) and not so great for everyone else.”

Actually, it doesn’t work well for anyone if the goal is to come up with the best or even the most ideas. Most of us aren’t very good at “free association” or coming up with ideas off the tops of our heads. And when we do free associate, studies show this technique tends to yield the most shallow, obvious, and predictable results rather than unique or “creative” ideas.

Worse is the mantra that “no idea is a bad idea.” This not only is untrue and inane, it actually does the opposite of what it is supposed to do, which is free people from censoring themselves for fear of being criticized. The assumption is that if people are afraid their idea might be criticized, they will shut down and not contribute. In reality, the dynamics of the freewheeling idea-dump do more to inhibit the best ideas from emerging than fear of being criticized.

The roots of the brainstorm session as we know it go back to 1948 when a Madison Avenue advertising executive named Alex Osborn published a book called Your Creative Power. He defined the “brainstorm” as “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each ‘stormer’ attacking the same objective.” The key to unlocking people’s creativity, he said, was freeing them from the constraints of negative feedback…