Brainstorming is an inefficient way to generate ideas.

Corporate brainstorming sessions, in the traditional sense, are an inefficient way to generate ideas.
Typically participants don’t have any idea what the session is discussing, the most vocal member of the team takes over, ideas suffer from group or individual censorship, no follow-up or tasks are created, the group usually lacks diversity (gender, race, age, organizational hierarchy),and most importantly, the problem and solution goals are communicated incorrectly.
A smarter way to start a brainstorming session is by carefully choosing the words used to describe the problem posed to the group and disseminate this before the session begins.
For Example:

Suppose we asked you to think of a way to “adhere” something to a garbage can. Chances are you would think of using glue or tape, both forms of adhesives. What if we asked you instead to “fasten” something to the can? Just switching a specific verb like “adhere” to a more general one would prompt you to list a wider range of possibilities: binder clip, paper clip, nail, string, Velcro, and so on.

The way a problem or goal is phrased often narrows people’s thinking. Framing a it in more general terms can help overcome the narrow perceptions. In the example above, switching the word “adhere” to “fasten” changes the initial ideas someone formulates in their mind. The word “adhere” has about 12 alternate associations, while “fasten” has at least 61 descriptive words which opens the mind up to many more possibilities.
Before the session starts, write these same starting goals at the top of a whiteboard and available resources at the bottom of the whiteboard. The division of goals and resources at the top and bottom of the whiteboards allows your group to work to their individual strengths. A big-picture thinker can work from the top-down at the same time as the detail-oriented thinker works from the bottom up. This simultaneous thought process can exist because it is done in silence by individuals writing down their ideas on sticky note, then adhering them to the whiteboard in real-time. This allows for the group to create more elegant solutions by building upon one another’s ideas and reducing fear of judgment by their peers.
The process above reduces the different types of censorship a group or individual experiences during the brainstorm session. However, another real problem that consistently hinders idea generation is the various types of “fixedness” one experiences.

Your team can easily overcome any form of fixedness if they trim the task/assets to its most generic elements.

Consider each element of an object and ask, “Can it be broken down further?” and “Does our description imply a particular use?” If the answer to either question is yes, we keep trimming down the elements with these two questions until they’re worded in their most general terms.


Choose words that have broad associations when preparing for an idea generating session. Then allow participants to work in their their preferred problem solving method, to reduce the potential for peer/individual censorship that a traditional brainstorming session may have. The result will be an increase in more ideas that are free from censorship and will produce unique solutions.

McCaffrey, Jim & Pearson, Jim. “Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It” Harvard Business Review,  12/15.

Maxwell, Clay. “Top 5 Reasons Brainstorming Sessions Fail” Creative Realities,  12/01/10.

Written by: Melvin Blohm