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Brainstorming Is Broken

Brainstorming can be fun. You get together and generate a massive list of ideas. Everyone is shouting all over each other. It’s exciting. It’s passionate. But what if it’s not all it’s cracked up to be? That’s a key argument in “Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time.”

The traditional approach to brainstorming often leads to groupthink, where everyone remains fixated on one particular approach. Quieter members never get a chance to share ideas and the group jumps to a potential solution way too quickly. It can lead to a breakdown in group productivity and lead to risk-aversion as people worry that their ideas aren’t good enough. In fact, teams tend to give up when they see that their efforts aren’t leading to results.

It’s easy to look at this and say, “I guess we shouldn’t engage in brainstorming.” But what if we fixed it instead? What if we tweaked the ideation process to allow every person to have a voice?

Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming

  1. Start with quiet ideation before leading to a group brainstorm. This allows every person to have a voice and allows for the group to specifically avoid groupthink. I will often ask students to find trends and then see if they can brainstorm solutions that are opposite of those trends. Here the goal is to purposely think differently than what they already assume to be true.
  2. Use multiple brainstorm prompts that include questions like, “How have you seen someone else solve this problem?” or “Is there someone in _______ area who might solve this differently?” or even “Could you combine two different ideas?”
  3. Try different brainstorming visuals. In other words, use lists but also include webs that work as collective mind maps or allow brainstorming to include visual sketches of ideas.
  4. Experiment with formatting. For example, a round robin brainstorm might allow all students to get a chance to share ideas. Here, each student moves clockwise, one at a time, and shares an idea. Another formatting method might be to have each student copy and paste the ideas into one shared document, followed by a period of reading the ideas and then adding more as a group.
  5. Create breaks for individual reflection. So, if you start with an individual brainstorm and you move to a group brainstorm as a list, end it by having students look at the list and create at least three new ideas based upon what others have written. I use the question, “How can you build on another person’s idea?” or “What is something you might be missing?”
  6. Move students to new groups in order to change up the perspective, avoid group think and offer a divergent perspective.
  7. Integrate brainstorming into a larger framework. So, we use brainstorming in the research phase (thinking of possible sub-topics) and in the ideation phase. However, we also use it when students are “stuck” in prototyping and need to step back and list possibilities.

The truth is we often brainstorm in our lives without realizing that we are doing it. It doesn’t have to be a formal activity. Brainstorming is simply the act of generating possible ideas, solutions or products. We do that naturally when we make things. However, I have found success in using a structured brainstorming approach with my students.

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A Different Approach to Brainstorming

Here’s a different approach that I’ve tried in my class. It’s not perfect and it takes a little bit longer, but it’s something that’s worked well for me. Feel free to take it or leave it.

First, students brainstorm alone. Some choose a list while others choose a web. By allowing students to choose the format, I am able to respect student agency. Student hear the implicit message, “This is your mental space. Choose a style that works for you.”

Next, they meet together as a group. We have one rule in this phase: No judgment. This means no criticism or commentary. Students are not analyzing the quality of ideas. The goal is to reduce fear and boost self-efficacy. It’s a chance to take creative risks.

I don’t set a timeframe on these first two stages. Sometimes we even brainstorm on multiple days and students borrow ideas from seemingly unrelated fields. By coming back to a brainstorm after a period way, students avoid some of the tunnel vision that can happen in the moment.

Next, we have a member of another group join the brainstorm and add any fresh ideas they hadn’t considered. This helps reduce the groupthink that can occur within a team. Sometimes we run this as a jigsaw.

The group then meets together again. They add ideas to the existing brainstorm and combine similar ideas. It’s a final chance to engage in flexible, divergent thinking.

Finally, they will analyze, evaluate, and narrow down ideas until they have a single, coherent concept. This phase can sometimes be tense and contentious, but it is also a vital moment for each group to engage in healthy conflict resolution.

This entire brainstorming process reduces groupthink and while ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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