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June 23, 2008 / davebirss

10 reasons why brainstorming sucks

Over the years, I’ve had to endure more brainstorms than I care to remember. In my opinion, they are a waste of employee time and company money and anyone who suggests having one should be banished to live with the lepers beyond the city gates.

And here are my reasons:

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea”
Really? As far as I’m aware, most ideas are bad ideas. Good ideas are pretty rare. And the purpose of brainstorms are to produce a large volume of ideas in the hope that one of them will be amazing. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time.

They’re expensive
This is business, so let’s be ruthless. Surely the way to measure the value of a brainstorm would be to add the cost of the man-hours involved and divide them by the quality of the solution (I know quality is a hard thing to measure – let’s not get into that!) Then compare the result with other problem-solving techniques like just having two smart people working together on the same thing. There have been studies done on this and they all indicate that brainstorms are ineffective and uneconomical.

The big mouths win
Very often the people who are most vocal are not the ones with the most to contribute. They’re just the ones who like having an opportunity to make themselves heard. And thanks to the principles of brainstorming you’re not allowed to tell them to shut up because their idea’s shit.

Some people are more equal than others
The people invited to a brainstorm aren’t the ones with the ability and experience of solving problems. I know that a good idea can come from anywhere – but in general it doesn’t. Sorry.

Blunderbuss versus sniper’s rifle
Good ideas are simple. They’re focussed. They’re easy to understand. To produce something like that, your effort needs to go into removing the unnecessary until you’re left with something pure. Not throwing more turds at the blanket.

Democracy never produces anything extraordinary
This idea of giving everyone an equal voice and right to an opinion is OK for producing something inoffensive that most people can tolerate. Big ideas and true innovations come from visionary individuals.

People are lazy and don’t prepare
To be (slightly) fair to the concept of brainstorming, they generally aren’t done properly and that is one of the reasons for their failure. The organiser of the brainstorm is supposed to narrow the session down to one specific question and send background information to the attendees. Even if they do that, it seems that very few people actually prepare for the brainstorm in advance. So time is wasted in outlining the issue and then the session loses focus because people still don’t get it.

People don’t care enough
There’s nothing at stake for the attendees if they fail to come up with anything. They’re not accountable and can just freewheel without consequence. To them, it’s just a couple of hours away from the dull monotony of their desk and a chance to talk bollocks and eat biscuits.

What do you do with all that shit?
After the brainstorm, someone has to go through it all to pick out the gems (assuming there are some). Very often the person doing that isn’t really qualified to do so and misses the interesting stuff. The crap floats to the top.

The term is offensive to 0.03% of all epileptics
And that just isn’t good enough, is it?

14 Comments

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  1. Anjali Ramachandran / Jun 23 2008 1:47 pm

    “Then compare the result with other problem-solving techniques like just having two smart people working together on the same thing.”
    Isn’t that brainstorming as well? Whether it’s done by two or twenty, isn’t the principle the same?

  2. Fizzypopman / Jun 23 2008 3:54 pm

    Dave, I think you raise some valid points here, but I do feel that brainstorms can be useful, providing there is a strong focus on the desired outcome. Why?:-

    1. From my experience, some really good ideas have come out of brainstorming, resulting in solutions that have saved many thousands of pounds (ie. worth the time invested).

    2. They can be fun, and a change from boring stuff (yes, I used the word ‘fun’ there!).

    3. It can give people a voice – making them feel involved in decision making process… or at least that their ideas are listened to (even if they are not used).

    4. It can be cheaper than hiring consultants.

    5. A good facilitator will make sure everyone prepares and that the ‘big mouth’ does not take over.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have also sat through brainstorms that I have felt to be a waste of time, but done well, I think they can be a useful tool, both for solving problems and motivating staff.

  3. Damien Parsonage / Jun 23 2008 4:03 pm

    One of my favourite pet-hates (if that’s not an oxymoron) as you know Dave.

    You’ve pretty much summed up all the problems here perfectly.

    All the best creatives I know hate meetings. And brainstorms are just big meetings.

    In my experience creative brainstorms are unproductive and lead to poor ‘first thought’ ideas. Brainstorming etiquette means that crap ideas are given undue consideration. There’s no ownership and no pressure.

    They seem to be especially favoured by uncreative people as a way of feeling involved in the creative process. Or by people who aren’t sure how to think creatively in the first place. So they gather as many people in a room as they can in the hope that they will stumble on some brilliance, somehow.

    The traditional two-person team is not the same; pairs work differently. In comedy, in music, in advertising. The dynamics in a team means there is real pressure to deliver. And you really feel that blank piece of paper staring back at you (what Hemmingway brilliantly described as ‘the white bull.’).

    Most teams I know will think individually for a while (which you describe as the preparation Dave) and then come together to discuss their initial ideas. You can’t turn up with nothing and ‘wing it’ in that situation if there are just two of you.

    You can also drop the politeness once you get started on the idea sharing. You can criticize more quickly and kill bad ideas before they take up too much time or lead you into a maze of mediocrity.

    It would be nice if a roomful people could do it quicker and better. But in my view and experience they just can’t.

    And it would be lovely if anyone really could come up with big idea – the tea lady or the receptionist, say. But I just don’t think it ever happens.

    Long live the team!

  4. davebirss / Jun 23 2008 4:08 pm

    Hi Anjali,

    For me, it’s the terrible rules of brainstorming that make it so inefficient.

    When you’re working with someone you can trust ,who understands the process, you can tell each other that their idea is terrible and you can be more focussed on the outcome. Brainstorms aren’t designed for that.

    And John,

    I’m sure that there are situations and environments where brainstorming rocks. It’s just that I’ve not encountered it myself. And I agree that it really depends on a good facilitator who knows what they’re doing. My rant is all from my own dreadful experiences. You’re halfway to creating your own 10 reasons as to why they’re great!

  5. davebirss / Jun 23 2008 4:33 pm

    Yup, Damien,

    I was thinking of you when I wrote this!

  6. Catcher In The Rye / Jun 23 2008 5:53 pm

    I have endured this kind of collective bullshit and all it did was drive me to the bottle.

    And I also can’t stand focus groups.

  7. Graham Jenks / Jun 24 2008 11:12 am

    Really good subject this one, nice one Dave.

    I’m sure there are some industries outside advertising that could benefit from a brainstorm (I have always hated that word).
    But in my experience I agree with the above, they are a real waste of time and lack focus.

    Good creative thinkers tend to move in a good collective thought direction, but others tend to run onto tangents and not see the gold.

    One possible plus point is for more junior thinkers being present during a brainstorm for development.
    Maybe the key is to be in a small group for this, I can never see a reason to ever have a large one.

  8. Ben Oliver / Jun 24 2008 1:18 pm

    I just sent this round the office. The best ideas that have ever crawled out of my grey matter were conceived with one other individual – usually someone who has the same geek understanding and references that I do. Two people, one idea shower = good times.

  9. eaon pritchard / Jun 24 2008 1:33 pm

    an emotive topic for sure. i just read this book Meaning Inc by Gurnek Bains, theres a whole chapter round this, worth a look if your interested in this kind of stuff – psychology of the workplace etc.

  10. davebirss / Jun 24 2008 2:39 pm

    Thank you everyone.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. Collaborative thought is obviously important in our industry and I’m a great believer that an idea can come from anywhere. It’s just a shame that it’s not usually a brainstorm.

    It’s obvious that small groups of focussed thinkers works. But I’m keen to find a new way of harnessing collective creativity. If anyone’s get any ideas, please let me know.

  11. mjsix / Jun 25 2008 11:40 am

    haha brilliant. I’ve been telling people for years that Brainstorms are a waste of time but have been far too lazy-arsed to do anything whatsoever about it. Thank you Mr Birss for giving me something I can point to when somebody next suggests it.

    PS: I have in the past tried to signal my displeasure by muttering the following under my breath when the idea is mooted:

    “I’ve walked through parks in many cities, and found no statues of committees.”
    Can’t remember who said it originally; Shaw, Wilde or Churchill I expect.

  12. davebirss / Jun 25 2008 11:58 am

    Cheers Marc,

    I love that quote. I’ve just googled it and found that it’s from G K Chesterton. I think he was the guy who wrote ‘Flyfishing’ for the Yellow Pages adverts. No, hold on, that was J R Hartley. My mistake.

    He also came up with this peculiarity:

    “You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.”

    I’m going to say that in a client meeting in response to a petty design quibble.

  13. mjsix / Jun 25 2008 4:23 pm

    fantastic- then confound expectation by growing a beard immediately.

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