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Brainstorming – Increasing Creativity and the Quantity and Usefulness of Ideas

January 30, 2012

“The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions.” Jonah Lehrer

True or False: Best practices for brainstorming in the context of market research include:

  • Consulting experts in a particular domain
  • Employing group discussion (as opposed to individual reflection)
  • Requiring participants to defer judgment to maximize the quantity of ideas

If you do not regard any of these ideas as ‘true” then your perception of brainstorming is already non-traditional. My guess is that most readers of this blog have participated in and/or led brainstorming sessions that followed most of these guidelines. I say this because they represent “conventional wisdom” about brainstorming.

An article entitled “Groupthink”, by Jonah Lehrer, from the January 30th issue of the New Yorker magazine shatters some myths about these established brainstorming guidelines. He cites research that points to ways to be more productive, creative and effective during brainstorming sessions. The article intrigued me because it explains and reinforces some of the unconventional practices that I have intuitively adopted over time.

To keep this post short I am going to list some ways that I have refined my group brainstorming practices that align with the research cited in the article. To read about the research related to brainstorming you will need to read the article. If you are not a subscriber to the New Yorker you can listen to this podcast for free.

When leading brainstorming sessions (in the context of qualitative market research) consider the following guidelines:

  • Be very specific about the objective – One way to avoid disappointment about the results of a brainstorm session is to be clear from the start about your desired outcome. A long list of random ideas is not enough. The objective should be a long list of ideas that help to further the research objective i.e. achieve the goal or solve the problem.
  • Require personal reflection prior to the group brainstorm – I believe that participants provide better quality and more focused ideas when they can gather their thoughts before beginning a brainstorm discussion. Depending on the circumstance, personal reflection might occur prior to the group in the form of a homework assignment or pre-group task. Alternatively, I frequently give participants a few minutes of precious group time to record their ideas on a “worksheet” prior to discussion. This helps to quickly identify and document the common ideas so that our discussion time can generate deeper insights.
  • Encourage “critical refinement” of an idea – Critical refinement requires participants to note a perceived problem with an idea and then propose a solution. No critique is allowed unless it includes one or more proposed solutions or refinements. This guideline ensures that ideas are not dismissed due to personal opinions (“I don’t think that will work”). Instead, the person challenging the idea adds depth and stimulates conversation related to making it even more effective.
  • Engage a range of participants to “cross-pollinate” ideas – For many reasons focus groups that devote some time to brainstorming tend to include mostly homogenous mixes of participants. However, there are many ways to share the ideas of Group A with those of Group B. This article on the Next Step Consulting website about the fishbowl process discusses one useful method.

Brainstorming is an essential qualitative market research tool that requires an experienced and professional touch on the part of the moderator to reap its full potential value. These refinements of typical practices have proven helpful to me and seem to be supported by the research cited in the New Yorker article mentioned at the beginning of this post.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2012 8:01 am

    I’m now also reading Lehrer’s book, Imagine. Good suggestions for improving brainstorming. Regardless of the endeavor (I work in conservation, not market research), fostering critical review of ideas is really quite challenging. I agree with your suggestions for critical review, but with one caution: Requiring that criticisms be coupled with a proposed solution may also shut down or stifle critical review (if you can’t think of a solution, you don’t get to criticise). I sometiems use a process borrowed from McKinsey that they call a “pre-morten” to explore and discover why something may not work and is another tool for busting groupthink and improving an idea.


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