I recently read a fascinating article in The New Yorker about brainstorming. In “Groupthink; The brainstorming myth,” Jonah Lehrer writes that brainstorming, as articulated by Alex Osborn in the late 1940s, isn’t as simple or effective as traditional thinking suggests. 

The piece makes several important assertions, among them:

  • Thinking quantity over quality isn’t always the most productive method. Simply throwing out anything that comes to mind isn’t the best path to great ideas.
  • Don’t rely on positive reinforcement alone. Debate and even criticize ideas within the group. Rather than Osborn’s belief that this will inhibit ideas, this will instead stimulate ideas and help the best grow.
  • Strive for an ideal balance of people who know each other and a few who don’t.

Lehrer couldn’t be more right. Progressive debate and criticism do have a place within brainstorming. Where I think Lehrer’s piece falls short is the role of the brainstorm leader. To me, the leader of the brainstorm is the key to the group’s efficiency. Here are some of my own assertions specific to the role of the leader:

  • Prepare diligently for every brainstorm and take an active leadership role in the room.
  • Consider the team. Familiarity can be a benefit but unique strengths (and weaknesses) should also be a consideration.
  • Begin by aiming for a large number of ideas. Then dive deep when there is a quality idea. Drill into that idea further than others and begin to refine it and hone in on its strengths and weaknesses. Stimulate the expansion of ideas and encourage people to build on it.
  • Be comfortable with silence. A certain amount of silence can allow people at the table to think and to offer even better ideas. Of course, if it’s lingering too long, offer a change of pace or a refocusing topic.
  • Imagine the problem as a fortress. Ask your team to come up with solutions on how to breach the walls of that problem. Next, determine which ideas have the best chance and help strengthen them to break through. How can you help guide the best ideas to solving for the problem?

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