The mere mention of the Great Depression conjures thoughts of universal economic collapse exemplified by breadlines and soup kitchens.  However, a handful of companies including Procter and Gamble and Chevrolet managed to survive, and even thrive, during the 1929 to 1939 economic meltdown.  Though the successful companies come from a variety of industries, they share one very important characteristic; they ramped up advertising expenditures while their peers tightened their belt buckles and fell into a slow death spiral  Enough Procter and Gambles and Chevrolets existed to enable the print and radio advertising industry to expand by leaps and bounds.

The burgeoning advertising industry led to modern brainstorming as we know it.  To meet the increasing demand for ever more differentiated and innovative concepts, the industry needed to find a way to dramatically increase productivity.  A man named Alex Faickney Osborn had the answer.  Born in May 1888, Osborn founded the BBDO agency (he’s the “O”) that is now a jewel in the crown of media behemoth Omnicom.  More importantly, A.F. Osborn is regarded as having singularly invented the concept of brainstorming to maximize the generation of advertising ideas.  Having introduced the technique for internally at BBDO earlier in his career, Osborn originally shared his gift with the world in the 1948 book “Your Creative Power” and expanded on the concept in the 1957 book “Applied Imagination.”  Among other things, his work established four prescriptive rules for successful brainstorming that remain in widespread use today.  The rules are:

1.      Aim to generate the maximum quantity of ideas

2.      Avoid criticizing any ideas

3.      Attempt to improve upon previously generated ideas

4.      Encourage the generation of radical ideas

Over the years, social scientists have had ample opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of Osborn’s theories.  Though a few intrepid explorers have attempted to study idea quality, it is practically impossible to measure with certainty.  Consequently, most researchers measure the effectiveness of brainstorming based on Mr. Osborn’s first rule – generating the maximum quantity of ideas.

First thing’s first.  The dirty little secret about group brainstorming is that it does not work – at least when the yardstick for success measures the sheer volume of distinct ideas generated.  A great many researchers have found that productivity drops as group size increases.  Hence, it is far better to have five people brainstorm individually and then merge their findings than to stick all of them in a room together.  This is due to a combination of people wasting valuable time interrupting each other and people holding back ideas for various social and psychological reasons.

Despite evidence of foolhardiness, group brainstorming is pervasive and highly valued.  But, why?  I believe there are two very good reasons.  The first is that idea quantity is not the only thing that matters.  Idea quality is important too.  It is hard to compare the effectiveness of individual versus group brainstorming on idea quality.  Remember Osborn’s third rule, which is to improve upon previously generated ideas during a brainstorming session.  If you have ever bounced your ideas off someone else, then you know the power of having more than one set of eyeballs on a problem.

The second reason that group brainstorming remains pervasive is perhaps even more important.  It has nothing to do with quality or quantity.  For an idea to truly be judged as great, it needs to make the journey from brain to successful implementation.  By synthesizing ideas in a group setting, great managers instill shared ownership and commitment.  This buy-in is well worth the price of a few less ideas.

If you are going to run a group brainstorming process, here are some essential tips for success.

Set the environment so that people clear their minds

When people walk into my office, the first thing they notice is its operating room sterility.  My gleaming desk, free of photos and paper, is surrounded on all sides by equally gleaming whiteboard walls.  Creative types would tell me I have it all wrong.  I have to admit, they are probably correct;in fact, one of the most creative people I know has crafted an environment that is diametrically opposite.  For better or worse, his office is so different from everyone else’s that it is a frequent topic of office gossip.  He has turned off the stack overhead florescent light and basks instead in the glow of warm desktop lamps.  Music plays softly in the background.  His walls are adorned with serene landscape photography.  All of this pays off for him since he is the one that frequently comes up with the ‘damn, why didn’t I think of that’ idea.

Just as it is for my creative colleague, a warm and slightly different setting is highly conducive to productive brainstorming.  If you can afford the time and expense, then it is a good idea to run brainstorming sessions at offsite locations.  This takes away the emotional intensity of corporate conference rooms.  More importantly, it puts people in the right mindset by removing the distracting possibility of leaving for a few minutes to take an important call.

If you cannot leave the confines of your office building, then you still have many options to alter the setting.  Start by rearranging tables and chairs.  Though some social scientist has no doubt studied optimal configurations, it is most likely the case that the important thing is just that the arrangement is different.  You can further alter the setting by dimming the lighting even if subtly, or like my colleague, playing music.

One of the more interesting though intuitive findings of brainstorming research is that the presence of an authority figure in the room has a strong negative impact on idea generation.  When the boss is around, employees take less risk and are therefore generally reluctant to offer radical ideas.  Hence, if you are the boss, get out of the room. Have a third party facilitator or qualified member of your staff run the show.

Share Osborn’s Rules and an aggressive quantity goal

In 2008, Washington & Jefferson College researcher Robert C. Litchfield set out to determine whether or not Osborn’s rules actually matter.  He was wise to do so since there is a great deal of entrenched conventional wisdom that is either a waste of time or outright destructive.  To answer the question, Litchfield gave 264 undergraduate students a version of what is known as the “thumbs problem.”  Specifically, all participants were given ten minutes to “generate ideas about the benefits and difficulties that would arise if everyone born after 2006 had an extra thumb on each hand.”

Good thing for us and for him, the professor was actually interested in two things.  The first was the impact of Osborn’s rules and the second was the importance of providing a specific but difficult idea quantity goal.  To study these two effects individually and in combination, Litchfield divided the participants into for four categories.  Though each individual brainstormed in isolation, he or she was given one of four sets of additional instructions.

The first two clusters were given either Osborn’s rules or a vague quantity goal.  Those with the vague quantity objective were told: “Your goal will be to do your best to generate as many ideas about the ‘’thumbs problem’ as you can within ten minutes.”  The vague quantity goal folks did the worst in the entire study, generating only 7.3 ideas on average in the ten minutes allotted.  Not far ahead, the Osborn’s rules only crew came up with 7.9 on average.  These results are statistically equivalent given their means, sample sizes, and standard deviations.  In other words, you are going to get the same rather poor result if you provide your brainstorming team with either a vague quantity goal or Osborn’s rules. Good thing, then, that Professor Litchfield had two more tests up his sleeve.

For his third test, Litchfield tried something different.  He gave sixty seven individuals a specific and difficult quantity goal, but did not include Osborn’s rules.  Fifteen years previously, two other researchers had determined that sixty-five ideas represented an aggressive but attainable goal for a twenty-five minute version of the “thumbs problem.”  Pro-rating this for a ten minute task works out to twenty-six ideas.  Litchfield gave his subjects an even more aggressive objective of thirty ideas.  In his words, “I rounded up on the side of difficulty.”  This group outperformed the other two thinking up 8.7 ideas on average.

Professor Litchfield’s last and final test is where things get exciting. The last group was given both Osborn’s brainstorming rules and the 30-idea aggressive quantity goal.  Their explicit instructions were “Previous research indicates that it is possible to generate 30 ideas in 10 min.  Please try to generate 30 ideas in this session.’’  This cohort trounced the other three, delivering 10.3 ideas on average in ten minutes.  (Incidentally, the best any of the 264 students did was 25 ideas, just shy of the aggressive expectation).

What was the Litchfield study’s crucial takeaway? To get the most out of your brainstorming session, share both Osborn’s rules and a specific yet difficult quantity goal.  Since every situation is different and you are not going to have the luxury of having someone else figure out what difficult looks like, you can assume that 25 ideas, give or take, for every ten minutes is sufficiently aggressive.

Minimize group size

As highlighted earlier, larger brainstorming groups are less productive than smaller ones due to a variety of social and psychological impediments.  Consequently, you have a few options to catalyze idea generation.  The first option is to ask individuals to ‘pre-brainstorm’ so that they can hand in a written copy of their ideas at the start of the session.  Providing anonymity is useful as that encourages more radical ideas, albeit at the expense of individual recognition.

Since people are busy, ‘pre-brainstorming’ may be a lot to ask.  Fortunately, you have at least one more good option.  Rather than brainstorm in a large group, you can ask people to brainstorm in smaller groups of between two and four individuals and then reconvene to aggregate ideas.

In the extreme, you can have an initial period of silence in the room where people jot their ideas down on paper.  As awkward as a partially silent meeting seems, research has proven that people generate a greater volume of ideas when they write them down rather than vocalize them.

Provide visual idea capture

I can vividly remember the most frustrating brainstorming meeting that I ever sat in.  This meeting had about thirty people sitting in a large, high-tech conference room with another ten participants on a phone conference line.  Compounding the exasperation for everyone involved, the facilitator was one of the individuals on the phone.  However, far and away the most disappointing aspect of this experience was that there was no one visually capturing ideas as they were generated.  That our ideas were falling on deaf ears was confirmed by the fact that a follow up summary of ideas created in the session was never shared.

When you run a brainstorming meeting, make sure that you do three things.  First, appoint a person to act as a scribe for ideas, letting everyone know who this person is.  Second, have the scribe capture ideas in a way that is visible to the entire team.  Options include using whiteboard or projecting on a screen.  Third, send a summary of the ideas generated to the entire team soon after the brainstorming session.


Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at running brainstorming meetings:

  • Set the environment so that people clear their minds
  • Share and follow Osborn’s Rules and an aggressive quantity goal
  • Minimize group size
  • Provide visual idea capture

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