Brainstorming Can Create Cloudy Minds Not Solutions

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Whether at school or work, most people are familiar with the idea of “brainstorming” to find new solutions to a problem or project. Brainstorming is regarded as a beneficial exercise to open up individuals’ creativity and allow new ideas to bloom. The only problem is that it does the exact opposite.

The concept and term “brainstorming” was coined in the late 1940’s by a man named Alex Osborn. Working in advertising, Osborn believed that brainstorming would “use the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” The idea of going to war on a problem sounds heroic, stirring up feelings of group comradery to conquer new ground, but in reality creativity is first and foremost a solo act.

The first empirical test for “brainstorming” as a group concept was performed in 1958 at Yale University where 58 students were given a series of puzzles to solve. Half of the participants were instructed to work alone, and the other half were broken up into small groups. The results turned all of the good sentiment of “brainstorming” on its head as the solo workers came up with twice as many ideas as the teams, and what more, the results were considered more “feasible” and “effective.”

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When a group comes together and starts sharing ideas on a problem before they’ve been given time to individually study it, the end result is that everyone gets mentally “blocked” by the first idea produced. Once someone else’s thought is in your head it’s really hard to come up with your own organic idea because its already being built around theirs. Another problem with traditional brainstorming is that criticism often creeps into the conversation when the goal isn’t focused on absolute quality but more-so quantity of ideas. Healthy analysis and debate is excellent fodder for brewing creative ideas but negative comments can also work in reverse. A harsh remark made at the first onset of an idea can turn a creative star’s light out for the rest of a brainstorm session and discourage others from coming out with their thoughts too.

This is the conundrum of developing ideas whether it’s in art, business, or relationships. Luckily, the solution is simple. Before your coworkers or classmates want to brainstorm on a topic, have everybody take 10 minutes to free-write their own ideas unencumbered. When the group does convene write down all the ideas being presented on a whiteboard. It’s the right surface to keep track of everyone’s thoughts without the pressure of perfection looming on everyone’s minds because it can be erased in an instant. You’ll find that more ideas start flowing than usual, and that you might need a bigger whiteboard!



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