If you and your team need to come up with some creative ideas, you may be tempted to brainstorm. Don’t do it. Brainstorming was originally introduced by Alex F. Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.
Since then, brainstorming has become a go-to thinking tool for creative ideas. But 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?
Why brainstorming fails us
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. But brainstorming has had its day.
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 pandemic boosted the number of people working from home 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 – they were developed for all participants being 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.
Acknowledge that questions are key
To get bold and powerful answers, we need to be posing bold and powerful questions. In Freaky Thinking this type of question is called a Killer Question.
A Killer Question is one that, when answered well, will deliver significant value for you. It’s a question that you—or the organisation—haven’t yet been able to answer satisfactorily, and it’s one you intuitively feel is possible to answer. It’s a question that has many potential answers and where you’ll have to choose the best one to execute. Just because you couldn’t answer a specific work question previously, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to answer. It just means that your thinking wasn’t imaginative enough to answer it then. But with a Freaky Thinking approach that positions it as a Killer Question, you can potentially answer it now.
A Killer Question ignites a fire, or a passion, for you personally. It’s when you recognise that if you are able to answer it well, there will be significant benefit for your organisation, your team, or yourself. Killer Questions spark genuine personal interest in finding great answers to them – and they ignite an individual’s curiosity.
Where are you when you get your best ideas?
I’ve asked many people where they are—and what they’re doing—when they get their best ideas. Typical responses are: in the shower; while driving the car; at the gym, or when walking the dog. It looks like there is value in undemanding activities.
In 2012, the University of California asked research participants to perform a creative task to come up with unusual uses for everyday items. Once completed, the participants repeated the test again and the performance change between the two tests was measured. However, the participants were split into four groups:
Group 1 had no gap between the two tests.
Group 2 was told to sit and relax for 12 minutes between the tests.
Group 3 had to look at changing numbers on a screen for 12 minutes and to say whether the previous number had been odd or even (a DEMANDING task).
Group 4 had to look at changing numbers on a screen for 12 minutes and say whether the current number was odd or even (an UNDEMANDING task).
The first two groups performed worse in the second test, while Group 3 did marginally better in the second test. However, Group 4 (that was given the undemanding task) surprisingly performed over 40% better in the second test.
To do your best thinking, you may need to have some kind of undemanding activity going on in the background.
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. The future of your thinking starts today.
Chris Thomason is the author of Freaky Thinking, a process that helps individuals in organizations to think differently about important topics and issues.