Businesses need to give brainstorming the boot

The new Greta Gerwig movie is receiving lots of praise for its creativity, but that creativity can be traced back to a different kind of barbie. A while back, one of our ancestors decided to partly burn their kill over a fire, rather than eating it raw. This use of fire for cooking food played a pivotal role in accelerating our brain development as a species. Cooked food freed up energy that would be used for digestion and allowed it to be redirected towards the development and maintenance of a larger brain. And over time, to the cognitive advancements of where we are today. This was probably creative idea number one.


The continued development of our creative thinking skills allowed us to overcome physical limitations, expand our capabilities, and tackle complex challenges. From the crude stone tools of our early ancestors to the sophisticated technologies of the present, thinking techniques have enabled us to accomplish extraordinary feats.


However, creative thinking didn’t stop at the invention of physical tools. While these early inventors may not have given formal names to the different types of creativity they employed, we continually sought to make our mental tools more efficient and effective. This led to the birth of formal techniques that further expanded our creative problem-solving abilities.


Techniques for creative thinking

The word brainstorming was originally introduced by Alex F. Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. Brainstorming emerged as a popular technique, encouraging the generation of a multitude of ideas through open and free-flowing discussions.


In the early 1960s Tony Buzan introduced the world to mind mapping, a visual representation of thoughts and connections, facilitating the exploration of different possibilities and perspectives.


And in the late 1960s Edward de Bono appeared on the creative thinking scene. The originator of the term ‘Lateral Thinking’, de Bono wrote over 80 books on creative thinking and provided a range of specific thinking tools including lateral thinking, Po and the six thinking hats.


In recent years, Design Thinking, a problem-solving approach that emphasises empathy, experimentation, and iteration, has gained prominence. It approaches challenges from a user-centred perspective, fostering creativity and innovation by putting the end-customer and employees at the centre of any issue that needs to be considered.


In our personal lives, tools such as journals, idea boards, and digital note-taking apps help individuals capture and organise their thoughts, facilitating the creative process. Creative hobbies such as painting, writing, and music provide outlets for self-expression and imaginative thinking.


Today’s situation

Today, we recognise creative thinking as a vital skill in many fields, including business, science, and the arts. Organisations encourage employees to think creatively to foster innovation and adapt to a rapidly changing world. Schools and educational institutions are increasingly incorporating creative thinking into curricula to prepare students for the challenges of the future.


However, in the business environment, the go-to thinking tool for creative ideas is usually brainstorming. Given the rate of change of practices in business today, how come a seventy-year-old process is still the tool of choice? What other management practices from the 1950s are still in use today—especially for a key aspect of work like creativity? And especially one that fails to live up to expectations so frequently.


Why brainstorming fails us

Let’s look at some of the basic rules of the brainstorming process.

  • There are no dumb ideas, so encourage wild thinking: There are plenty of dumb ideas. Wild ideas aren’t intentionally stupid ideas, they’re just totally impractical.
  • Quantity counts at this stage, not quality: No, it doesn’t. Quality is always important.
  • Don’t criticise other people’s ideas: If someone is consistently being way-beyond the realistic, then wouldn’t a little constructive guidance potentially help them?
  • Every person and every idea has equal worth: No! Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute something useful. How they use that time is up to them.
  • Only one person talking at a time: This brainstorming rule ensures that there may only be one person talking at a time – but also that there’s always someone talking.
  • HiPPOs rule the waves: The highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) openly and sub-consciously influences what success will look like.
  • False anchoring: Early in the session, somebody puts up an idea that gets a supportive comment like ‘that’s brilliant’. This idea acts as a false anchor or a black hole for thinking.
  • Aggression or agreement: Teams need to get outsiders in to strongly challenge their thinking. This may be contrary to the team being seen as getting along.
  • Accepting the lowest common denominator: A group often promotes the idea they feel most comfortable with. This ends up being the lowest common denominator of agreement.
  • Voting on ideas: Unless the team are all responsible for the success of the outcome, the choice of what to do next should be left to the owner of the issue.



The future of creative thinking

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent Future of Jobs 2023 report looks out to the skills that business leaders believe will be needed by 2027. Their view is that creative thinking is the top skill on the rise. Close behind are analytical thinking in second place and curiosity in fourth place.


The recent changes in work practices due to Covid have meant more people working from home permanently, or sharing work time in the office in a hybrid manner. This permits us greater freedom as individuals in where, and when, we might perform our creative thinking. This is one consideration that all the creative thinking processes developed to date don’t focus on. When they were developed, the default situation was that all participants would be in the same room or office.


So new methods of creative thinking are coming to the fore, that work in our modern hybrid world. They are based on the science of how our brains work creatively and they overcome some of the shortcomings of the brainstorming approach. For example, Freaky Thinking’s approach of posing, and brilliantly answering, Killer Questions individually in your best thinking place and time is a radical change to the past thinking practices. It integrates this with the three types of thinking from the WEF’s view of future skills required. The convergence of the need for these types of thinking skills with hybrid working practices, is the way of the future.


What’s next?

Creative thinking is an innate human ability that has evolved and adapted over time. It’s played a crucial role in our progress as a species, enabling us to solve problems, innovate, and find practical solutions. In a rapidly changing world, no matter how fast new capabilities and technologies are developed, there will always be the need for creativity to think how to apply them in interesting and unusual ways for the benefit of individuals and society.


Given that thinking in groups in the workplace by brainstorming is proven to be inefficient, we need to promote individual thinking to really boost creativity in addressing key business issues.




Chris Thomason is the author of Freaky Thinking, a process that helps individuals in organizations to think differently about important topics and issues.


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