From Alex Osborn To Bob Sutton: A Meeting Of The Minds To Build A Better Brainstorm

We play host to an imaginary gathering of experts who share their real-life thoughts on how to brainstorm better–or whether to brainstorm at all.

From Alex Osborn To Bob Sutton: A Meeting Of The Minds To Build A Better Brainstorm
Illustration by Stephen Doyle

Fast Company: I’m Anya. I’ll be your facilitator for today’s brainstorming session. Our topic: how to brainstorm. Why don’t you introduce yourselves and then start by saying the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term brainstorming. That’s a standard technique, by the way, called freewheeling.


ALEX OSBORN: I’m Alex, the “O” of legendary ad agency BBDO. I’m deceased. I invented brainstorming in the 1930s, wrote the rules, and coined the term in my 1953 book, Applied Imagination. Brainstorming means using the brain to storm a creative problem and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.

GERARD PUCCIO*: I’m Gerard, and I’m the chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. We’re proud to cite Alex as our inspiration. Brainstorming is one of the most enduring, well-diffused, widely researched methods of creative problem solving.

BOB SUTTON*: I’m Bob, cofounder of Stanford’s and a Fellow at Ideo. I don’t get the excitement about brainstorming. It only makes a difference if it’s part of a larger creative process, as you see at Ideo, Pixar, and other places that do real creative work.


KEITH SAWYER*: I’m Keith, the author of Group Genius. People love brainstorming! They’re having fun, they’re laughing, they can even get into a state called group flow.

RICHARD HUNTINGTON: I’m Richard, and I’m the director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi. I hate brainstorms. They waste huge amounts of time and talent, and they’re no fucking good at delivering decent ideas.

CHARLAN NEMETH*: I’m Charlan. I’ve been studying group decision making for 30 years at Berkeley. Brainstorming is really just one technique for enhancing creative decision making. But the rules of brainstorming have never struck me as the best way of achieving this.


FC: Okay! We’ll talk more about the rules in a second. Anyone else?

JONAH LEHRER: I’m Jonah. I declined to comment for this article. But I wrote in The New Yorker, “There is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.”

FC: Thanks, everyone! Now, as facilitator, it’s my job to keep the focus on process. Research shows that a trained facilitator can help–yes, Gerard?


PUCCIO: We need to decide the purpose of our brainstorming. How you frame the problem will frame all the thinking that occurs afterward.

OSBORN: The purpose is simplicity itself: Above all, quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.

SAWYER: That’s not really true. In the decades since you wrote your book, Alex, numerous studies have shown that brainstorming groups actually generate fewer ideas, and of lower quality, than if you take the same number of people and have them generate ideas alone.


HUNTINGTON: Exactly. Brainstorms are a Trojan horse for mediocrity.

SUTTON: That’s overstated and possibly wrong. I did a two-year ethnographic study of brainstorming at Ideo with Andrew Hargadon. We found six ways brainstorming helps organizations: It builds institutional memory, it motivates, it supports an attitude of wisdom and experimentation, it promotes a meritocracy, and it impresses clients, when brainstorming is done in front of them.

FC: That’s five.


SUTTON: Oh, yes. And it provides income, since the cost of Ideo sessions are billed to clients.


NEMETH: Morale building may be your goal, but good morale doesn’t mean the group has been creative. A number of studies show that the perception you’ve been creative often has no correlation with whether you actually were.


SAWYER: That’s called the “illusion of group effectiveness.”

SUTTON: Well, whether they’re effective or not, we all have to go to meetings. Are individuals better at problem solving than groups? It’s a stupid question, like asking, What’s more important in baking a cake, the oven or the batter? What works best is usually a blend of individual and collective ideation.

FC: I’m seeing some significant differences of opinion here! That raises another issue. Alex, when you first laid out the rules of brainstorming, one of the most important was to withhold all criticism until later.


OSBORN: Yes. We need self-encouragement as much as mutual encouragement. A perfectionism complex will throttle effort and abort ideas.

NEMETH: I’m sorry, Alex, but I disagree. The notion of “do not criticize” is intuitively reasonable–everybody thinks you’re very fragile and you’ll fold if someone criticizes you. But most of our studies show that exposure to a persistent minority view stimulates creativity. You start looking for evidence, the mind opens, and you become more original. That’s why in my 2003 brainstorming study, we let one group debate and even criticize one another’s ideas.

LEHRER: The results were telling. The teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly 20% more ideas.


PUCCIO: That study was very poorly conducted. I wouldn’t put any stock in it whatsoever. Both groups were instructed to generate “good” ideas. That’s not truly brainstorming.

FC: So you think the experiment was compromised because the participants were told to edit themselves by withholding any idea they didn’t think was good?

PUCCIO: Exactly. They generated 20 ideas in 20 minutes. That’s ridiculous. Our experiments show that groups of four to eight come up with five ideas per minute.


SUTTON: Studies like Charlan’s make sense to me. Research on constructive conflict shows that argument in an atmosphere of mutual respect has a greater effect on creativity than brainstorming. Look at Pixar or Xerox PARC. They engage in constructive conflict. It’s part of the culture.

NEMETH: The beauty of the finding is that it doesn’t depend on the minority view being right. The sheer provocation gets you to reassess your own position.

FC: So even if you, Alex, and Jonah are all wrong, it can still be helpful to hear what you think.


SAWYER: Well, Jonah quotes me saying brainstorming is no good at producing quantities of ideas, but I don’t think he read the rest of my chapter, where I talk about the importance of group collaboration.

FC: Okay, okay! We’re getting bogged down. Does anyone have an idea to get us going again?

PUCCIO: I do! I have something that helps people jump tracks and teaches flexibility in thinking. [He passes around a binder with photographs of beach scenes, office buildings, exotic animals, and so on.] How do the pictures make you feel? What do they make you think of?


SUTTON: They remind me of an Ideo brainstorm to develop alternative haircutting devices. Participants brought in a hundred things that you could cut something with: hedge trimmers, sheep shears, a machete.

PUCCIO: Now please close your eyes. Imagine yourself someplace relaxing, maybe out in nature. Okay, open your eyes. Where did you go? What can you associate with the problem at hand?

NEMETH: I was thinking of the time I spent researching and interviewing Nobel laureates on their creative process.

SAWYER: I thought about the years I played in jazz combos. Groups are better for problem finding, for working on ill-defined or wicked problems, where you don’t know what a solution would look like or even if there is a solution.

FC: Great. Let’s finish by going around and sharing our one take-home idea about brainstorming.

HUNTINGTON: Death to the brainstorm! Long live good ideas!

PUCCIO: It’s one tool in your toolbox.

NEMETH: Creativity requires freedom. Rules are better as guidelines than as prescriptions.

SUTTON: Blend the individual and the collective.

OSBORN: There can be no set formula for the production of ideas.

*Puccio, Sutton, Sawyer, and Nemeth spoke to Fast Company for this article. All comments were taken from interviews or published writing, and edited for form.


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation