Why brainstorming is a bad idea and what to do instead.

Adam Albrecht
4 min readMay 17, 2024

I have never liked brainstorming. Ok, that is not entirely true. At first, I loved brainstorming. You know, the classic meeting that sounds like barnstorming, but without the barns, biplanes and scarves. In brainstorming sessions, a group gathers in a conference room with markers and candy to generate a collective storm of creative ideas that come from the brain.

In the very beginning of my career, I loved these meetings because I was good at them. Brainstorm sessions allowed me to show off just how stormy my brain was. I would blast the room with my ideas. I would build on the ideas that others stormed. I felt like I was in my element. Like a hottie in a swimsuit contest in Panama City on Spring Break.

But then I started realizing what was really happening in those brainstorm sessions.

  1. A small number of people shared a large number of ideas.
  2. A large number of people shared a small number of ideas.
  3. Too many people weren’t sharing any ideas. They were just eating the candy.

Boo.

The key to valuable ideation is volume and variance. You need to generate a lot of ideas. Because great ideas are a percentage of total ideas generated. You also need variance because you want different types and styles of ideas to compare and contrast with each other to weigh the relative benefits of each approach. If your volume is low, or your variance is low, your options are low. And your creative possibilities are limited.

Social dynamics also degrade the potential power of brainstorming sessions. The loudest and most influential people tend to Boss Hogg the air time. They create a hierarchy that prevents others from wanting to share ideas or stick their neck out with contrarian ideas. Which is what brainstorming sessions must have to provide maximum value.

Once I recognized how inefficient these group thinking sessions were I became a born-again non-brainstormer. And I have never liked them since.

A Better Solution

The best way to create the most ideas is to have people think on their own and write down as many ideas as possible. By ideating independently, each person maximizes their thinking time, which leads to more ideas, and a greater range of exploration. An hour spent with 10 people generating ideas independently means everyone has 1 hour of air time. That’s 10 hours of idea generation. Which beats 10 people together sharing 1 hour of air time every time. (See the talk show The View for proof.)

For maximum effectiveness, the ideas should be collected and shared anonymously, so they are evaluated without biases towards their creators. Once all of the ideas are available it is valuable to gather, evaluate, discuss and build on the ideas as a team. And you can still serve candy and sniff markers.

At The Weaponry, the advertising and ideas agency I lead, we’ve created something we call Seed Sessions. In these sessions, we share a broad range of pre-generated ideas that we call seeds. Each seed is shared as a slide with 3 elements.

  1. The name of the idea
  2. A short paragraph summarizing the essence of the idea
  3. A visual representing the idea

In a Seed Session, we may sow anywhere from 20 to 40 seeds. We discuss the ideas and build on the favorites. Everyone in the room has the opportunity to feed and water them. We shine sun on the favorites. And by the end of the session, the seeds have grown into vibrant plants full of potential.

The Seed Session process offers a great way to maximize idea generation and utilize the collective intelligence of the group to identify and build on the best ideas. Which is exactly what brainstorming sessions are intended to do. *Unless brainstorming sessions were actually created by candy companies to sell more candy to adults. Which is a pretty sweet idea.

Key Takeaway

Great ideas create competitive advantages for organizations. To generate the best ideas you should maximize both the volume and variance of your ideas. This is best done through individual ideation, which maximizes thinking time and minimizes social inhibitors and biases. Share the generated ideas and build on them together. It’s the greatest way to harness the collective brain power of your team.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.

+For more of the best life lessons I have learned check out my book, What Does Your Fortune Cookie Say? from Ripples Media.

Originally published at http://adamalbrecht.blog on May 17, 2024.

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Adam Albrecht

I am a growth-minded entrepreneur and author of the book What Does Your Fortune Cookie Say? I share what I'm learning on my journey. And I try to make it funny.