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| May 25, 2010

by Jim Bruce

In today’s readings “Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work”and “Better Brainstorming:  4 Ways to Generate Great Ideas“, Margaret Heffernan reminds us of several shortcomings in our brainstorming practices and suggests improvements.  Heffernan is visiting professor of entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston, CEO, author, and speaker.

Referencing work by Nicholas Kahn and Steven Smith <>, she notes several things that occur given the way we often do brainstorming:

– evaluation apprehension – worry that others will think our ideas foolish

– social loafing – some contribute nothing at all to the activity

– social matching – some contribute ideas that are essentially indistinguishable from ideas spoken earlier.

Heffernan suggests that our desire to belong restricts the breadth of ideas we might think of but dare not offer.

Other research results demonstrate that we run out of steam when we brainstorm;  that the first five minutes of brainstorming are the most valuable.  And, brainstorming alone is 44% more productive than brainstorming in a group.

All this suggests a new approach to brainstorming:

1.  Clearly state the topic for the brainstorming session and write it out for all to see.

2.  Give each individual in the group an unlimited number of post-its on which to set forth their ideas.  One idea per post-it.  Allow five minutes for this work.

3.  Everyone participates in sorting the post-its into affinity clusters.  (A blank area of a wall provides a good place for this work.)

4.  When the sorting has become stable, have the participants write a short (say seven words) summary statement for each affinity cluster.

5.  Take a break to allow participants to have time to reflect on the results so far.  Some may identify missing ideas and affinity clusters to add to the previous results.

6.  Do a further review of the ideas.  Perhaps by having participants work their way along the ”wall“ reading the post-its.  (Some additional sorting may also take place at this point.)

7.  Use a technique such as multivoting to identify the highest priority ideas.  (In multivoting, give each person a number of ”votes“ equal to the number of priority ideas you want to result from the process.  If the number of ideas is large you can do this step in the process in two steps, allowing a larger number of ”votes“ for the first stage.)

And, now you have a set of results from your brainstorming exercise.  (Heffernan, in the second reading, provides another version of how you might update your brainstorming process.)

The next time your work requires some brainstorming, give one of these processes a try.


.  .  .  .     jim