Why Innovation By Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Anything—even doing laundry—will help you dream up new ideas better than sitting in a meeting, says Debra Kaye, author of "Red Thread Thinking." A case study of the history of the single-use detergent pod.

Eleven men and women file into a conference room and take their places around a large table. Coffee cups and pastries are assembled in front of them. George, the leader, steps up to a large whiteboard and scrawls across the top "SOAP STORM SESSION 9/18/12." "Okay, let’s begin," he tells the group. "Let’s just start free-associating. What do we think of when we think clean laundry?" he asks. "To get the ball rolling, I’ll write a few words down," he says and dashes off chore, piles, whites and brights, and fresh on the board. "What else?" he asks. Several people add a few more words: time-consuming, fold, bright, uncontaminated, pretty, nice, old-fashioned, and pleasant.

The meeting continues for about an hour, with more words and thoughts added. The plan was for the team to come up with a new idea for laundry detergent. When the meeting is over, the team members file back to their cubicles, word lists in hand, to ponder the outcome—but none of them ever produced any new insights into doing laundry that would lead to a new product. That’s because the group made the fatal error of trying to innovate by brainstorming around the idea of the central attribute of laundry—cleanliness. So while they came up with a pretty long list of words, none of the few concepts that came out of the meeting—"cleans in a shorter time," "cleans without presoaking," "brightens without fading"—was out-of-the-box spectacular.

This scenario takes place every day in office suites around the world. That’s an important point to remember, because companies everywhere are brainstorming the same things about clean laundry as my imaginary team. Everything about clean laundry likely has been thought of before. It turns out that a brainstorming session is a great place to load up on baked goods and caffeine, but it’s not so great for generating ideas. In fact, the team in my imaginary example would have come up with more original associations and innovative thoughts had they stayed home and sorted a sock drawer, taken a hike, relaxed in a bathtub, or done just about anything else autonomously—including a load of laundry.

The conventional wisdom that innovation can be institutionalized or done in a formal group is simply wrong. Part of what we know about the brain makes it clear why the best new ideas don’t emerge from formal brainstorming. First, the brain doesn’t make connections in a rigid atmosphere. There is too much pressure and too much influence from others in the group. The "free association" done in brainstorming sessions is often shackled by peer pressure and as a result generates obvious responses. In fact, psychologists have documented the predictability of free association.

You can see this clearly from the responses to "clean laundry" in my example. One association feeds off the next in an expected fashion. The leader does what leaders often do—inadvertently gets the upper hand by throwing out certain words that generate conventional results, thereby dominating and directing the "free" association of the group.

As I said earlier, the team should have been given the day off to do laundry. That’s pretty much what happened at Philadelphia-based Cot’n Wash Inc. Originally the company was a cotton mill that spun cotton and made sweaters. In the 1980s, the owner’s wife developed a gentle detergent that would wash the sweaters without yellowing or stretching. Flash forward about 30 years. Nina E. Swift, wife of the original owner’s son, Jonathan Propper, was doing laundry one day and realized that even though she loved Cot’n Wash, she disliked measuring and pouring liquid or powder from a jug or a box. Both were messy, and she used far more detergent than was recommended (measuring is imperfect and people err on the side of generous, she discovered).

This was a mega consumer insight. Was it just she who felt this way, or was it everyone? She talked to Jonathan, who thought she was on to something. So he brought the idea to his small company and created Dropps, a single-use package of detergent. One small package, similar to those used in dishwashing packets, washes a load of laundry—all you have to do is toss it in the wash and go. It solved a lot of problems—no more measuring, mess, or waste. The product also benefited the environment by using less water, plastic, and packaging. No phosphates or chlorine means it’s green.

"The technology actually existed for the dissolvable laundry detergent package," says Dropps’s Remy Wildrick, who calls herself the pragmatic side of Propper’s creative mind. "And the patent happened to be owned by a person in Philadelphia, which was just a nice side note. We bought the technology from him and developed Dropps." The product is sold online, at independent retailers, and at Target. Other larger manufacturers didn’t introduce their versions of the single-serving detergent pod until years later.

"What’s funny is that the technology was sitting there for quite a while, but none of the big guys were using it. They were sticking to the same old jugs and boxes—but in mid-2012 they all started coming out with uni-packages," says Remy. Since Dropps is small, it can’t compete on volume sales with the big guys, but it can compete on the product’s green aspects and focus on the fact that it contains Cot’n Wash detergent, which has an almost cult-like fan base, especially among the environmentally conscious.

Fresh ideas come when your brain is relaxed and engaged in something other than the particular problem you’re embroiled in. In the Dropps situation, Jonathan Propper’s wife identified a problem, and he made a connection to a solution, a technology that existed for another application. This is the polar opposite of what happens in brainstorming sessions. Long showers, soaks in a tub, long walks, or doing chores are frequently when those "synapses" that find alternative solutions to a problem in new ways all hit together so that the big idea can spring.

Published as an excerpt from Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation with permission from McGraw-Hill Professional.

Debra Kaye is a trends consultant specializing in brand strategy. Follow her on Twitter at @DebraA_Kaye.

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Kulinski]

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  • Leon Markovitz

    Great piece Debra, really liked it.
    And perhaps this comment comes too late in the future, but I recently wrote a post on the topic of Brainstorming, specifically: Does it work?It turns out that, although it may not have been effective in the past, new crowd-sourcing tools can provide great ways to brainstorm with relevant people outside your industry. Perhaps Electric Brainstorming is the way, perhaps Alex Osborn was right -but too far ahead of his time.You can read the full post here: http://blog.wikibrains.com/wor...

  • MAC

    The issue is innovation can be derived from many different avenues. There is a huge difference in a true innovator and people in a group brainstorming.  Both can come up with innovative ideas, but I bet I can tell you who's idea will be the best!

  • Dan Boyer

    Debra, i would like to know...do you beleive that Brainstorming with someone who could put a mood in a room and have some knowledge on how to make the brains of people in idea mode could actually improve regular brainstorming. And if you agree, what type of brainstorming technique you would suggest ?


    Montreal, Canada

  • Elaine Phillips

    Being that brainstorming is such an expected part of working collaboratively, I am hoping that someone will follow up with an article that suggests substitutes.

  • Greg Jordan

    The veil of brainstorming has been swept away by this article.  Something that we all have probably felt deep down, but were trapped by the brainstorming mantra.  Great insights!  thanks for writing it.

  • Rcgreene10

    Although brain storming may not work, "brain writing" actually does.  I read an article in Psychology Today a number of years ago that outlined the creative process of having each participant "write" their thoughts to posed questions on a piece of paper that was then circulated to the next participant for comment and response. I've since employed "brain writing" with much success. Although each person has their own colored pencil, their responses & comments are always anonymous. Also, papers are circulated in different directions so that the same people are not responding to each other's comments.  As a result, I am able to blunt the influence of my more dynamic participants. Further, my less eloquent public speakers blossom during the exercise.  And believe it or not, good insights emerge and the process is extremely creative.

  • Brian Egras

    It would be more useful to provide fundamental research on innovation techniques rather than providing one anecdote that purports to be the paradigm for ideation failure.  But that is how business books work these days.  You find examples that did not work and say, "don't do these things." Then, you find examples that worked and say, "do these things".  That's how science worked in the Dark Ages.  Are we in the Dark Ages of business thought?

    By the way, see Innovation Tournaments by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich to learn about repeatable ideation processes that work.

  • AtomicHead

    Facilitator, schmilitator... Regardless of who runs the meetings, nothing is ever solved in a 'creative meeting'. Are we ever allowed to have those two words next to one another? The social and work structure is the poorest environment for 'free association'. Truly big ideas come from individuals NOT groups. For me personally, i have solved more work things doing the most mundane of tasks. One instance had my mind WANDERING (key word here folks) as i mowed my yard and laughing about a conversation i had at work that day. Luckily i had a pizza box from the recycling near by and a Sharpie marker from the garage. I mowed a strip or two and would pause to sketch further refinements on the design i was solving. Lucky for me, no one was there to 'guide me' as i mowed nor sketched. The pattern that day was circles even as i mowed. Some of my clients are engineer types and they do solve in groups - the funniest thing i heard observing them was a guy "thought of something while he was tying fishing flies late last night". He brought us his 'findings' and another guy riffed on it and BOOM - problem solved and onto production.

  • ChrisKilber

    I would tend to think that there are inherent problems with institutional brainstorming.  We start with the strata of varying job functions.  ie... the bosses and brass tend to sway people into group think.  We have simply domination by people simply because they may be equipped and can sell others better.  ie.. may good at communication but not innovation. And simply, there have to be people who don't care. Throw in cost benefit analysis and any consensus would be suspect.

  • John Shi-Nash

    A lot of insight in there and in the further comments. My experience also suggests separating problem or need identification from solution definition. I've always considered and practiced observation and doing as a very large part of understanding unknown needs, the ones that your users don't realize they have or assume are unreasonable. While brainstorming and focus groups are OK for telling you unmet and ill met user needs and giving solutions to these. Then you need to produce concepts to solve the above and here again I'd agree there are far better ways of doing it than a dull meeting with Marketing execs picked for their position not creativity or understanding. One I like a lot is splitting groups up into 3's a triad if you will, selected to give the right understanding, playfulness and creativity and then letting them play and generate solution. Then bringing them back as a larger group to combine and further conceptualize - takes time but you usually get many hundreds if not thousands of solutions, even in the 'new to the world' arena - it also allows the genius to flourish if you have one!

  • Jaimin Rajani

    One of the more sensible and informative articles I've read. Very well covered (comprehensive yet precise). I couldn't have agreed more. Carrying out conventional brainstorming sessions intended to innovate or troubleshoot is merely an archaic practice that does not facilitate its purpose and it's high time we get over it and resort to more practical and effective means by understanding that a cool, relaxed mind is a requisite for contemplating. On the contrary, the rigidity of the generic brainstorming sessions not only confines one's thinking abilities due to peer-pressure, but the desire to come up with an idea before anyone else, regardless; leaves little emphasis on the idea being creative and acceptable.

    It is simply moronic to practice any process in expectation of "voluntarily" getting your hands on some ingenious idea(s). But at the same time I also feel that this might be subjective to some extent.

  • Stephen A. Karel

    I truly hope that no one follows this advice.  I have ran companies from Holloywood to 7th Ave., and over 30 yrs. in the retained search business; I can prove with many successes that brain storming works very well.

  • Odd Job

    I actually agree with Dr House on this one. It doesn't matter who is in the room, how well facilitated it is I cannot produce my best work in a brainstorm session. I need space to think and to do research. I know how my brain works and have a clear creative process that allows me to consistently deliver. A lot of the best innovators & creatives I know are introverts. A lot even have aspergers. These people are highly sought after for their "rain man abilities" to come with novel solutions that work.
    I have been in plenty of brainstorming sessions. They are fantastic for getting the client involved and the more people in the room the more the consultancy can charge. Plus it is great for ticking a box on process & collaboration.
    I am happy to sit there and observe and nibble on some food and let the people who love to hear their own voice and 'spit ball' ideas out there. Unfortunately I don't like sandwiches either and find the food really poor to what I normally eat. The facilitator will also try to drag me in as a "subject matter expert" and try to get me to play the game. But I won't guess or say anything that might not work, or where I do not have evidence. I like to look at the problem and work in a systematic fashion. Not everyone is process orientated. Some are outcome orientated and need to look at things and think. I would never spit out ideas without working through them mentally.
    Had a ridiculous one where everyone was just making stuff up and then looking at me to see if I was going to say anything. My answer was I need to think about and it sketch out some ideas. Dreadful. They wanted me to list things that might be included. Complete waste of time. If they wanted a list they should have booked my time and had me prepepare one. I walked out and told them it was ridiculous to waste 12 people's time for 4 hours when I could have produced it in one hour and have all the materials on my computer. It was clearly a scam to over charge the client by putting on a show.
    But I completely get why other people like brainstorm sessions. Good way to avoid work. In the end it usually does not matter as ideas are useless on their own. The research, analysis and real work will still have to be done. The experts will model it and come with additional ideas and hypothesis to test along side. The ones that go forward will be the ones with the evidence to support it.
    The irony is that the ones coming out of the brainstorm sessions usually aren't that great and need a lot of work.

  • Luis Alonso

    brainstorming outside the office = life
    brainstorming inside an office = work
    brianstormng in front of cupcakes and black coffee = play
    so, it will work if you manage to mix life work and play into the same equation. only eating cakes and drinking coffee wont put your brain to work (unless the coffee was really hot, which totally takes anyone figuratively out of a room for a second or two)

  • bontemedical

    Another author, another slick scenario about how innovation works. Listen to the xperts. I know xperts is spelled wrong. It's to get you thinking why someone would spell it wrong. I got your attention.
    If you want innovation, go to someone who innovates, invents. How many of these authors or facilitators actually invented anything, yet they present themselves as having techniques to do soo. You don't go to a mechanic to have you toothe pulled you go to Dentist. The sooner corporate America understands this the more innovative they will become.
    Innovation and inventing is a process where the inventor has an idea, yet questions the idea in numerous ways to discount the discovery. Most people don't understand that it is the question process or self critical evaluation that has to take place before true innovation starts. People and managers especially will not question their beliefs to such an extent, it's almost like a self inflicing pain that you can't believe you don't understand or know the answer. Your a manager a supervisor, college educated. Your supposed to know the answer? Wrong innovation and discovery doesn't play favorites it is what it is. 

  • Debra Kaye

    I like your answer.  And I like that you spelled xperts incorrectly.  I totally get that.  And, yes, I have invented many products including some of the world's best selling personal care products.  If you ever do read my book, you will chuckle because you will see that I do question everything till it hurts and how many times I get reproached by my clients for it. :)

  • Jaceti

    Debra - you have invented products - yet I cannot find a patent with your name on it - can you provide some examples?

  • Debra Kaye

    I am a consultant to clients.  My team and I work with their R&D, marketing and research departments.  Our agreements are that the clients own everything (including patents) that we develop together, never my company or me.  We follow this approach because we believe it creates a better alignment of interest between client and consultant, which is obviously critical to our business.

  • SusanRobertson1

    Unfortunately, most of the research that's cited about brainstorming not working is conducted with groups who aren't trained in brainstorming techniques and facilitators who also aren't trained.  Just like you have a more stable house when skilled carpenters create it, you have more effective brainstorming when skilled facilitators create it.  There's lots of research that shows that skilled facilitation overcomes the negatives of group-think and leads to better ideas.  When done well, which certainly isn't what's described here, facilitated brainstorming works exceptionally well.   Incidentally, any skilled facilitator would use the types of exercises described here to engage people's brains in other ways.  That the imaginary facilitator here didn't do that is simply further proof that a poor process will lead to poor outcomes.  Susan Robertson, Innovation Consultant, Ideas To Go, Inc.  http://www.ideastogo.com/blog-...