Why Brainstorming Often Fails

October 21, 20133 min

Let’s start this entry with a real life example – I was once teaching a Certified Product Owner course and I gave the participants instructions to brainstorm, as a group for ten minutes, to create at least a dozen features they would like to see in their product.

About two-thirds the way through the activity, one group had only two items.  They were deep in conversation, but did not have much to show.  I was puzzled by their lack of ideas, so I observed their interactions for a few moments.

Participant #1: “How about something that interacts with other mobile devices?”

Participant #3: “No – we already have that.  We need something cool.”

Participant #1: “I tend think interacting with other mobile devices is cool and no other provider offers that feature today.”

Participant #2: “Well…what about some type of messaging capability or alerts?”

Product Owner: “No – too hard and I don’t like alerts.”

Participant #2: “How about a feature that makes it easy to install on new hardware.”

Participant #3: “That is so obvious, I don’t think we need to write that down.”

It was at that moment, I decided to intervene and asked a simple question “What are you doing?”.  The participants responded, at more or less the same time, “We’re brainstorming.”

My response, “No you’re not.  You are evaluating, classifying and editing ideas.  If you were actually brainstorming, you would have a lot more ideas on the table than two you have now.”

A lot of people are probably be familiar with the old classic technique to support divergent thinkingBrainstorming.    There is nothing wrong with brainstorming on it’s own.  It is a good way to generate ideas, but in my experience it is normally so poorly facilitated, that people most people really hate it and groan at the mere mention of the word.

So what makes most brainstorming sessions awful?  From what I have seen, instead of trying to generate as many ideas as quickly as possible, i.e. engage in divergent thinking, both the facilitator and participants immediately categorize, evaluate, defend and eliminate ideas as they come up, i.e. participate in convergent thinking.  In these so-called brainstorming sessions, participants learn very quickly to only give ideas that are within a predefined range of acceptable instead of something new and original.  A classic case of using the same type of thinking to solve the problem that generated the problem.

There are at least two ways to combat bad brainstorming and I suggest starting with these two.  First, review the activities in Chapter Five of the Gamestorming book.  One of the strengths of this book is that there are twenty-six games to support divergent thinking.  Since most of the activities are unfamiliar to people, they are difficult to short circuit and will generate many new ideas, perspectives and points-of-view.  Second, engage with a good facilitator.  Ideally, the ScrumMaster should be the person leading a brainstorming session since their role is to be a completely neutral facilitator interested in making sure the process produces the results needed.  With respect to brainstorming, the ScrumMaster is responsible to support the group in generating a large number of new ideas which can later be reduced via convergent thinking.