Why Is Brainstorming So Frustrating and Unproductive? Too Often It's a Random "Blue-Sky" Attempt to Force People to Be Creative, Without Providing Structure or Guidance

Alan Iny and Luc de Brabandere of The Boston Consulting Group, Co-Authors of Thinking in New Boxes, Pinpoint the Weakness of Most Brainstorming and Offer a Path to Breakthrough Creativity

NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - Jul 22, 2013) - The traditional approach to brainstorming demands that people "be creative" on the spot. They are expected to sit down together and come up with bold new ideas in a random, free-wheeling way. To participants, the process can feel intimidating and futile, and too often the result is wheel-spinning rather than a productive use of time.

There is a better way, according to Alan Iny and Luc de Brabandere of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), authors of the upcoming book Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity (Random House, September 2013).

"The biggest misconception about creativity is that it's passive," says Iny. "People have this misplaced notion that 'creativity' just happens, that big ideas magically pop into your mind, but very often that's not how it works. To yield useful results, the creative process needs to be focused on specific questions, with specific constraints and criteria -- rather than engaging in aimless, unconstrained 'blue-sky' type of thinking."

"Doubting old ideas is the first and most important step to finding truly creative solutions," explains de Brabandere. "In most brainstorming sessions, however, people are brought together and told to think up something new, while the old assumptions and preconceptions that created the problem in the first place are left unchallenged."

They assert that two lessons can be invaluable in preparing for and running brainstorming sessions:

First, Breakthrough Creativity Requires Us to Doubt Everything, Starting with Our Objectives

"The mind jumps to conclusions very quickly, based on only a few data points," says Iny. "First impressions are often distorted, incomplete, misguided, or all of the above. So if you get people together and just let them loose on a problem, without questioning their old assumptions about the problem, they will often be drawn right back into the same old rut, or 'the way we do things around here.'"

Consider a common brainstorming problem: an organization that is suffering a sales slump might get people together and tell them to brainstorm new sales ideas. The authors suggest that a better place to start is by doubting everything they think they know about the problem. Rather than brainstorming sales ideas, they might ask themselves whether they are forcing participants to solve an unsolvable problem:

  • Are we asking the right questions in the brainstorm?
  • Can we make sure we challenge "the way we do things around here?"
  • Are sales approaches really the issue?
  • Maybe the market has moved on.
  • Maybe the market is saturated.
  • Maybe the competition has changed the game.
  • Are we even in the right business anymore?

According to de Brabandere, BIC Corporation provides a terrific case study on how radical doubt can power an organization toward truly creative solutions: "In the 1970s, BIC was looking for new ideas to help them grow. But rather than think of new ways to make and sell plastic pens, BIC's executives stepped back and asked themselves what business they were really in. That process of doubt led to a true EUREKA! moment. They quickly realized their business was bigger than just pens. It was disposable plastic items, and soon they were growing by leaps and bounds by making pens, shavers, lighters, and a range of other products."

Second, Brainstorming Participants Need to Get Focused on the Right Problem to Arrive at the Right of Kinds of New Ideas

Brainstorming can be a stressful, intimidating experience in which participants feel forced, in front of their colleagues, to come up with brilliant ideas on the spur of the moment. The process is often random, with no formal structure, an approach that according to the authors can be the enemy of true creativity.

"The best things about traditional brainstorming are spontaneity and improvisation, but without focus, people find it difficult to harness creativity in a practical way," said Iny. "Even if participants manage to break out of an existing mental rut, they will veer off in random directions, which only have a small chance of being useful. To improve the utility of a brainstorm, participants should be asked to address a specific question or problem that is well defined in advance. They should also be asked to come up with answers that meet specific criteria and constraints -- to ensure that solutions are practical to implement."

"Creativity is a process of questioning and discovery, in which people take enormous amounts of information and make unexpected connections," says de Brabandere. "To be effective, brainstorming needs specific exercises that challenge people to re-invent, re-imagine, and create new associations." The authors cite a range of tools to help focus participants and spur creativity, such as:

  • BELIEFS AUDITS: Inventory participants' thoughts and opinions about the current situation -- not just superficial beliefs, but also subconscious or suppressed beliefs that may influence people's thinking without their realizing it.

  • WILD CARD EVENTS: Imagine the most unreal, unexpected, seemingly impossible events, challenging people's ideas about what they may face in the future and keeping them from being complacent.

  • CRUSHING: Takes new or existing ideas and re-imagines them in unlikely and surprising ways -- using "verb commands" to change perceptions about even the most familiar concepts: e.g., Twist it; Stretch it; Turn it upside down; Purify it; Electrify it; Give it texture; Put it to music.

According to Iny, "By starting with radical doubt, and then using a systematic approach to generating new ideas, brainstorming can be transformed from a dreaded burden into an exciting discovery of new opportunities."

About the Book

Thinking in New Boxes offers readers a practical guide to unlocking true creativity: what it looks like, how to achieve it, and what to expect from it. It also provides powerful new tools to improve the creative process, whether for individuals, teams, or entire organizations.

About the Authors

Luc de Brabandere is a BCG Fellow and a senior advisor in the Paris office of The Boston Consulting Group. He leads strategic seminars with boards, senior executives, and management from a wide range of companies looking to develop new visions, new products and services, and long-term scenarios to prepare for the future. He is the author or co-author of nine books, including The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity through Changes in Perception, and a regular columnist for various newspapers in France and Belgium. Prior to joining BCG, he was the general manager of the Brussels Stock Exchange.

Alan Iny is the senior specialist for creativity and scenarios at The Boston Consulting Group. Based in New York, he has trained thousands of executives and BCG consultants, runs a wide range of workshops across industries, and speaks around the world about coming up with products, services, and other ideas, developing new strategic visions, and thinking creatively about the future. Before joining BCG in 2003, he earned an MBA from Columbia Business School and an honors BSc from McGill University in Mathematics and Management.

About The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 78 offices in 43 countries. For more information, please visit bcg.com.

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