Why Brainstorming Is A Weak Creative Thinking Device (And What To Do Instead)

The 1960s Brainstorming method for creative thinking is limited and outdated. Instead, try these 6 creative thinking tools.

image of a woman and man in a brainstorming meeting

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

The 1960s Brainstorming method for creative thinking is limited and outdated. Instead, try these 6 creative thinking tools.

I remember about ten years ago I enrolled in a sales and marketing course. It was reputable, took place over several weeks and it was expensive. Despite cashflow being tight at the time, I decided to take on the cost because I believed it could be the silver bullet for which I was looking.

But almost immediately I felt like a fish out of water. I was a tradesman, in business for myself and doing reasonably well despite no prior sales training, but a tradesman nonetheless. The other participants were corporate people already employed in sales and marketing roles, and the dynamic of the group didn’t suit me. Regardless, I had shelled out the fee, so I was in whether I liked it or not.

One afternoon we were assigned some group work. We needed to come up with a novel solution to a problem and brainstorming was the means. I can’t remember the specifics, but I do remember the discomfort I felt.

The environment was new to me, and arguably that was the primary reason for my unease. But also, the brainstorming group lacked cohesion and direction.

Problem no.1: some group members were suggesting the most ridiculous unworkable ideas you could imagine and the rest of us knew it. But instead of those crappy ideas being rejected, or at least questioned as to their potential effectiveness, all ideas were treated the same. No one was brave enough to question, including me. Do we just nod our heads and be courteous, or do we critique each other’s suggestions?

Problem no.2: There was no one facilitating the group discussion, so we were kind of rudderless. We had a remit, but there was no leadership and no template for generating ideas. The general feeling was, where are we going with this?

Although none of us was “feeling it” and the outcome was far from ideal, we completed the assignment. Afterwards, I remember thinking, well, that was a waste of time. Maybe it was the dynamic of the group or perhaps the subject matter. Maybe it was just me!

I don’t know; perhaps it was a combination of many things. On reflection, I think most of all, it was due to the fact we weren’t using the right creative tools.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg writes in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity [1], that brainstorming amounts to telling people to “be creative”. Results would be better served if people had one or two more specific techniques for generating and evaluating creative ideas.

The problem with brainstorming, Sternberg writes, is that although it may be suitable for group idea generation, it’s not so good for individuals. He also says that if an idea is terrible, it may be difficult for anyone to say so initially. This can become problematic if the brainstorming group member suggesting a bad idea is a leader. Who will be brave enough to counter the bad idea? What if the problem to be dealt with is a critical one?

He says brainstorming on its own is not an evaluative device. The more ideas generated, the greater the need for practical evaluation.

Sternberg cites scholar and educator Edward DeBono, who suggests that lateral thinking [2] is a means of generating creative ideas. Lateral thinking departs from traditional vertical thinking insofar as it asks us to set aside associative ways of connecting concepts together. With lateral thinking, we try to conceptualise the problem in a new way.

An Example of Lateral Thinking

In an experiment, researchers presented subjects first with a military story. In the story, an army General must capture a fortress located in the centre of a village to which there are several access roads which have been mined. A small group of soldiers can pass through any single road safely, but a large number will detonate the mines. Therefore a full-scale direct attack is impossible. The General’s solution is to divide his army into small groups, send each group down a different road, and converge simultaneously on the fortress.

Participants were then asked to find a solution to the following medical problem.

A surgeon has a patient with a malignant tumour in his stomach. Due to the location of the tumour, the surgeon can’t operate. But unless she destroys the tumour, the patient will die. An x-ray can be used to destroy the tumour, but at the required intensity, the surrounding healthy tissue will also be destroyed. At a lower concentration, the x-rays is harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumour either.

Question: What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumour with the rays, and at the same time avoid killing the healthy tissue?

Results: The researchers examined if participants would see the relationship between the military story and the medical problem and generate a workable solution. For participants who didn’t receive the military story, only 10% managed to generate the answer to the problem. This percentage rose to 30% for those who received the military story in advance of the problem. However, the positive results reached 75% when participants read more than one analogous story.

6 Creative Thinking Tools You Can Use To Solve Problems

DeBono suggests the method of thinking by analogy employes a simple story that can become an analogy when it is compared to the current problematic condition. The story must have a process that can we can follow, one that we can easily understand and apply to the present circumstance. DeBono additionally offers several thinking tools that help people think laterally.

Random Entry Idea Generation

The concept here is to think of an object or word from a dictionary at random then try to associate it with the problem at hand. For example, if you are stuck on whether or not to buy a new car, you might consider the colour green. Green might suggest to you “green lights” and the ease at which you can get around. Or it might indicate that you will be “green around the gills”, or sickened at your poor decision. You might choose the word experienced. You may think I need more driving experience so a few more lessons might be a good idea first.

Provocation

Provocation asks you to think of a false or impossible statement about a problem. You then ask yourself if somehow that provocation might be useful in finding a solution. Wishful thinking, exaggeration, and distortion of reality are examples of provocation. For example, a provocative solution to running out of bread daily might be to have a bakery in your back garden. Although not practical on their own, Provocations help develop solutions when used with Movement.

Movement

The concept of Movement focuses on how to move from one aspect of a creative solution to another. Here we try to generate a general principle that we can apply to the problem. Take the above Provocation; the general principle here is that if we had a bakery in the back garden, then we’d always have bread. Moving from the provocation using the general principle, we might offer the solution of purchasing a bread oven and baking bread daily at home.

Challenge

In this case, we are urged to challenge the obvious. For example, challenge the idea that all vehicles need to have a steering wheel, or that cupboard doors must swing open left and right. This is not so, because all vehicles do not necessarily have steering wheels and all cupboard doors do not open left and right. The idea here is that we challenge convention and come up with different ways to do things.

The Concept Fan

The Concept Fan requires us to think more broadly than we might otherwise. First, we draw a circle on a page then write our problem inside the circle. Drawing lines from the edge of the circle to the right, we draw new circles and enter possible solutions. If we get stuck, we take a step back by drawing another line to the left of the first circle and take a more simplistic look at the problem. More about the concept fan.

Disproving

Disproving requires us to take a closer look at those things the majority consider right and attempt to prove it wrong. If something goes without saying, then we are required, when using this method, to take the opposite position. As you may imagine, all parties would need to understand the concept here, or things may get heated and out of hand.

Thinking laterally helps us discover new innovative solutions to existing problems, but sometimes we need a prompt. Life experience, exposure to novel situations helps build that creative ability. As such, I would suggest that creative thinking is not something that can be taught, but instead, it is a condition of consciousness that can be nurtured.

Sternberg concludes his piece by suggesting that creativity is, in large part, a decision — a set of attitudes towards life — that we can encourage in ourselves. Therefore we must always seek out opportunities to question existing beliefs and practices. A big part of that is supporting the right culture.

(For more on critical thinking methods, see Six Thinking Hats [3] and Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono)

Article References

  1. Kaufman, J., & Sternberg, R. (2019). The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (2nd ed., pp. 88–101). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

  2. DeBono, E. (1973). Lateral Thinking (1st ed.). New York: Harper Colophon.

  3. DeBono, E. (2000). Six Thinking Hats. London: Penguin Books.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

You’ll also find me here

My Site ¦ Twitter ¦ The Larb Podcast