Tips on how to conduct the right brainstorm (with recommendation from Isaac Asimov)

Illustration of Isaac Asimov; courtesy of Shutterstock

I recently stumbled across a long overlooked essay by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Before being shared on the MIT website, On Creativity had been gathering dust for nearly 50 years in a filing cabinet at the Allied Research Associates, a thinktank tasked with generating ‘outside the box’ ideas for a missile defence system. Asimov had been hired by the agency but soon thought better of it; he felt that knowledge of government secrets would compromise his freedom of expression. In the hope of leaving something useful behind, Asimov decided to address the question ‘How do people get new ideas?’

Succinct, astute and occasionally anachronistic – happily it’s no longer true to say that “the world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad” – the essay is packed with insights about the creative process and is particularly good on what Asimov calls “cerebration sessions”, or brainstorms as we call them today.

Is any creative tool more widely maligned or justly ridiculed than the brainstorm? God knows I’ve had the misfortune to attend some terrible ones. There was the ‘ideation session’ at a major international broadcaster to which no less than 25 people had been invited, 24 of whom didn’t get chance to speak. I recall another where some of London’s sharpest and most talented designers had first to remove their shoes and then chant new age mantras. And there are too many to mention that began with a half-arsed brief and objectives so muddy you had to wipe your shoes on the way out.

Yet even though brainstorms are often poorly conceived and, as Asimov observes, individuals are capable of extraordinary creative breakthroughs on their own, there is often merit in coming together for “cerebration sessions”, if only to share “theories and vagrant thoughts”.

So what are the right conditions to induce collective creativity? How do you get right what others have got so wrong? And is there such a thing as the perfect brainstorm?

Here are some simple principles I’ve drawn from Asimov’s essay as well as from my own sometimes painful experiences:

GET THE PERSONNEL RIGHT

The make-up of who you choose to invite is important. The more diverse, the better. Choose a mix of characters, backgrounds, expertise and experience. Asimov encourages the recruitment of “eccentrics” who are “willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense” – though you probably don’t want too many of these in the room at the same time.

And when it comes to numbers, I’m with Isaac: five people should be the upper limit. Any more and the opportunity for genuine interaction and exchange disappears. If lots of people need to be involved, or want the opportunity to solve the brief, then stage more sessions. Don’t be tempted to invite them all in one go.

MOOD MATTERS

The conditions under which you hold the brainstorm count for a lot. If it’s 24 hours before a pitch that could keep your struggling agency afloat and everyone knows their jobs are on the line, don’t expect the ideas to flow. As Asimov says, “probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility”.

Instead, you need to create a vibe where anything goes. For Asimov, “there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding”. And so he suggests meeting in someone’s home or in a restaurant rather than in a bland conference room. I’ve found the local park on a sunny day hard to beat. And if you can begin the brainstorm with a stroll, even better.

Another great trick I’ve learned is to begin with the question, “What’s the worst possible idea we can come up with?” This immediately takes the pressure off. It’s fun and often funny. And it can sometimes take you in a really unusual direction, straight off the bat.

DON’T BEGIN WITH THE BRAINSTORM

I’m a big believer in the power of individual creativity. Asimov too. He writes, “as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.” I think we can safely say this applies to non-men too.

The number one mistake people make when staging a brainstorm is for the brainstorm itself to be the first time attendees see the brief. Far better is to share the brief beforehand, give everyone some time to absorb and incubate the problem, and then come along with a few early thoughts sketched out.

You can then begin by moving round the group with an individual show and tell. And very often new and exciting ideas will emerge through combinations of these nascent thoughts.

DON’T LET THE LOUDMOUTH WIN

One of the problems with the format of the brainstorm – one that’s neatly observed by the author Susan Cain in her excellent book Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – is that it favours those with the loudest voices. And in my experience those with the loudest voices are often the ones with the least interesting things to say.

Asimov writes, “If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience.” One study, mentioned by Mathew Syed in Rebel Ideas, suggests that on average, in a four person group, two people do 62% of the talking, and in a six person group, three people do 70% of the talking. The larger the group, the worse the problem. And the people doing all the talking typically believe everyone is speaking equally.

One way round this is to employ a technique called brainwriting. Each person at the brainstorm comes along with an idea that they think could be a possible solution to the brief. Each idea is written on a Post It, anonymously without attribution, and stuck on a wall. Together the group talk through these ideas one by one and assess their merits without being influenced by their perception of who came up with the idea. It’s a simple way to ensure everyone’s voice is heard equitably.

HAVE A LEADER

Democracy is a wonderful thing, but, when it comes to creativity, I believe a benign dictatorship often produces better results. Every brainstorm needs a leader; someone who can shape and direct the discussion without dominating it.

Asimov suggests the role of this leader is similar to that of a psychologist, “asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible)”. For me the leader of the brainstorm is the one who manages momentum; a brainstorm is nothing without flow. To achieve this I pinch a technique from improvisational comedy known as “Yes and….”

In improv when someone makes a suggestion you go with it. Even if it’s a completely ridiculous suggestion. When they tell you you’re a tree, then you don’t say, “No, I’m not a tree” – if you do your improv career is not going to be a long one. Instead, you say, “Yes, and if I’m a tree then that means the birds on my branches etc….”

This isn’t the same as accepting the hoary old premise that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Of course there are bad ideas. But if someone suggests one in the brainstorm, you as the leader, look for some aspect of it that can be built on or taken somewhere else, all the time encouraging an onward flow of ever-evolving thoughts.

WITHOUT QUANTITY THERE’LL BE NO QUALITY

The first person to come up with the idea of the brainstorm is said to have been legendary ad man Alex Osborn, the ‘O’ in BBDO. He had four rules of brainstorming. The third was “Go for quantity. The more ideas you have, the better.” (In case you’re wondering, the first was “Don’t judge or criticise ideas”; the second was “Be freewheeling, the wilder the idea, the better”; and the fourth was “Build on the idea of fellow group members”.)

And this is undoubtedly true. Asimov again: “For every new good idea you have, there are 100, 10,000 foolish ones.” So keep on pushing. As Thomas Edison said, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.”

Like so many things, brainstorms typically operate on a bell curve. A little slow to get started, they’re most fruitful in the middle before they ebb to a natural conclusion. Judging when this moment has occurred is another reason to have a wise leader. And if you’re still going after 90 minutes, you should stop.

IT’S THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE IDEAS THAT ARE OFTEN THE MOST VALUABLE

When she’s teaching, the artist Marina Abramović gives each of her students 1,000 pieces of paper. They spend three months coming up with ideas – one for each sheet of paper. The ones they like they keep on their desk; the ones they don’t they throw in a bin. At the end of the three months Abramović discards the ideas on the desk without even looking at them, and retrieves the ones from the trash, because she believes the ones in the trash “are a treasure trove of things they’re afraid to do”.

If an idea feels at first awkward or uncomfortable or challenging then there’s a good chance it has within it the seeds of something special.

Asimov writes, “It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.”

Wise words to remember when it comes to evaluating the ideas from your brainstorm.

TO SUM UP

The truthful answer to Asimov’s opening question of how do people get new ideas is by taking a shower or walking the dog or doing the dishes. Insights occur most often when we’re alone, our minds are at rest and we’re not consciously thinking.

Yet the ‘cerebration session’ or brainstorm can be a valuable tool to share your ideas with others, to combine them and to produce a whole raft of new thoughts.

And if you’re able to gather a group of people together who are “thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional”, then even if you don’t come up with a great idea you’ll have fun trying.

Richard Holman is a writer and coach. This article originally appeared on Holman’s website at richardholman.com


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