Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The method was first popularized in the late 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising executive and one of the founders of BBDO, in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output by using the method of brainstorming.

Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, researchers have generally failed to find evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they are actually less effective than individuals working independently. In the Encyclopedia of Creativity, Tudor Rickards provides the article on brainstorming, summarizing the controversies. He also indicates the dangers of conflating productivity in group work with quantity of ideas.

There have been numerous attempts to improve brainstorming or replace it with more effective variations of the basic technique. Although traditional brainstorming may not increase the productivity of groups, it may still provide benefits, such as enhancing the enjoyment of group work and improving morale. It may also serve as a useful exercise for team building.

There are four basic rules in brainstorming. These are intended to reduce the social inhibitions that occur in groups and therefore stimulate the generation of new ideas. The expected result is a dynamic synergy that will dramatically increase the creativity of the group.

Focus on quantity. This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production, aiming to facilitate problem solving through the maxim, quantity breeds quality. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.

No criticism. It is often emphasized that in group brainstorming, criticism should be put ‘on hold’. Instead of immediately stating what might be wrong with an idea, the participants focus on extending or adding to it, reserving criticism for a later of the process. By suspending judgment, one creates a supportive atmosphere where participants feel free to generate unusual ideas.

Unusual ideas are welcome. To get a good and long list of ideas, unusual ideas are welcomed. They may open new ways of thinking and provide better solutions than regular ideas. They can be generated by looking from another perspective or setting aside assumptions.

Combine and improve ideas. Good ideas can be combined to form a single very good idea. This approach is assumed to lead to better and more complete ideas than merely generating new ideas alone. It is believed to stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association.

Electronic brainstorming is a computerized version of the brainstorming technique. It can be done via email. The chairman or facilitator sends the question out to group members, and they contribute independently by sending their ideas directly back to the facilitator. The facilitator then compiles a list of ideas and sends it back to the group for further feedback. Electronic brainstorming eliminates many of the problems of standard brainstorming, such as production blocking and evaluation apprehension. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. Electronic brainstorming also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic than would normally be productive in a traditional brainstorming session.

Directed brainstorming is a variation on electronic brainstorming. It can be done manually or with computer technology. Directed brainstorming works when the solution space, or the criteria for evaluating a good idea, is known prior to the session. If known, that criteria can be used to intentionally constrain the ideation process. In directed brainstorming, each participant is given an electronic form and told the brainstorming question. They are asked to produce one response and stop. At that point all of the forms are randomly swapped among the participants. Each has possession of someone else’s form containing a single response. The participants are asked to look at the idea in front of them and create a new idea that is better than that idea on the first criterion dimension. For example, if the first criterion was low cost, the participants might be asked to improve upon the idea in front of them by creating an idea that is lower in cost. The forms are then swapped again and respondents are asked to improve upon the ideas against the second criterion. The process is repeated for three or more rounds.

Use of the term brainstorming has been criticized on the grounds that it is politically incorrect and offensive to people with epilepsy. However, there appears to be little truth to this claim. A 2005 survey by the UK charity National Society for Epilepsy found that 93 per cent of people with the condition surveyed do not find the word offensive.


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