Brainstorming Doesn’t Work!

A few weeks ago I spoke with Debra Kaye, the author of Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation. I have to admit that she challenged some of the notions that most of us accept as successful best practices—the effectiveness of brainstorming, for one.

“The conventional wisdom that innovation can be institutionalized or done in a formal group is simply wrong,” she argues. “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.”


I can’t count the number of brainstorm sessions I’ve participated in over the years, some of which I thought were very productive, so I wasn’t sure whether or not I really agreed with Kaye when we first talked about this. However, in the context of creating innovation, I’ve come to think she’s right.

Although there have been times when great (read innovative) ideas floated up to the surface of a brainstorm, in my experience they were definitely the exception rather than the rule. Kaye suggests her best ideas come to her in the shower, I have a colleague who experiences flashes of brilliance at the gym, I get my best ideas in the middle of nowhere on the motorcycle—almost never in the middle of a formal brainstorm session.

I was talking with some colleagues the other day, many of whom disagreed. The idea of challenging the validity of a brainstorm seemed like challenging the fact that the sky was blue or the grass was green. It didn’t go over very well.

Nevertheless, when I have to come up with an innovative idea or strategy, I realized that I prefer time to myself to formulate my thoughts and let things “marinate.” I think that’s why the shower, the gym, and the Harley work so well. Once we’ve had time to think about ideas for a while, it’s often when we least expect it, when our thoughts are quiet, that inspiration (and the truly innovative idea) strikes.

“Fresh ideas come when your brain is relaxed and engaged in something other than the particular problem you’re embroiled in,” writes Kaye. “This is polar opposite of what happens in brainstorming sessions. Long showers, soaks in the tub, long walks, 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. These things remove us from the task-based focus of modern life—bills, e-mail, housework—and put us in a more ‘associative’ state.”

Kaye argues, and I agree, that most of the innovative solutions we seek are discovered by making connections to things we already know—hence the need for things to marinate and for our minds to relax and see the patterns.

“Thought is really about making new combinations from existing elements,” she says. Intuition comes from a correlative ability (linking Red Threads) to understand how memories, knowledge, observation, and concepts can best be brought to bear on the problem at hand—the power to see how Red Threads interconnect. We think of people with this correlative ability as being talented in connecting seemingly disparate events into cohesive original thoughts. Being intuitive is not reserved for a few special people, but some people are more practiced at allowing their minds to clear and recapturing the images and ideas that flow through them. The fact is that we’re all intuitive beings; we just need to give ourselves a chance.”

I think the biggest challenge we face to find truly innovative ideas lies in the full-steam-ahead, fast paced environment we all work in. There is seldom time to step back and allow great ideas to percolate up. Allowing people time to clear their thoughts and let great ideas reveal themselves is much more important than trying to force an innovative idea out of a brainstorm. But how many people are really given the luxury of time to step away from the desk and think?

A couple of years back I worked with a very talented graphic designer who would sometimes disappear in the middle of the day to sit behind his drum set to clear his head. He would often come back an hour or two later with incredible ideas. Fortunately, his boss appreciated the need to step away and allow the great ideas to percolate.

As small business people, there’s always more to do than there is time to do it. I wonder if we sometimes look to formalized techniques like a brainstorming session to truncate the time required for good ideas to marinate instead of allowing people that time and freedom to step away and allow the truly innovative ideas to float to the top.

What are you doing to foster an innovative environment?

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business best practices, tips and advice accessible by weaving personal experiences, historical references and other anecdotes into relevant discussions about leading people, managing a business and what it takes to be successful. Ty writes about small business for Lendio.

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