Rethinking Ideation: Challenging the Three Myths of Brainstorming

Facilitating ideation sessions—whether with consumers or clients—is one of my favorite research challenges. I have conducted several “How to Build a Better Mousetrap” projects over the years, everything from designing a drug store of the future to reimagining the paper plate. When I was given my first assignment in the mid-1990s (new product development for a cosmetics manufacturer), I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know where to start, how to structure the session or how best to unleash the creativity of the 25 client “experts.”

Fortunately, I had a mentor—a seasoned ideation facilitator who taught me the tricks of the trade. He started with a few of his cardinal rules of brainstorming and gave me an old, tattered book called Your Creative Power by Alex Osborn (a partner at BBDO) who he described as the “Godfather of Brainstorming.” He directed me to a couple of chapters on how to facilitate brainstorming, after which I realized that my mentor’s cardinal rules were right out of this book. (BTW, the book was published in 1948!)

How to Build a Better Ideation Process

While Osborn’s methods were groundbreaking, they have gone largely unchallenged for decades. That is, until recently. Last year, while flipping through The New Yorker (and, of course, focusing on the cartoons), I came across an article entitled “Groupthink” by Jonah Lehrer in which the author referenced the Osborn book and how the tried-and-true techniques for brainstorming facilitation simply don’t work—at least not as well as advertised. Lehrer cites several research studies, some going back to the 1950s, which debunk Osborn’s tenets. Further research on my part was a real eye-opener: There is evidence everywhere that we should rethink some of the ideation basics. Here are a few brainstorming myths to keep in mind for your next ideation challenge:

Myth #1: Two Heads are Better than One

Brainstorming in a group creates many more ideas than working alone. The group dynamic stimulates deeper thinking and greater creativity.

In fact, the research evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Studies show the same number of people working alone generates far more ideas (and more creative ideas) than when the same people are given the same task in a group. There is something about the group dynamic that makes the individual less creative. Does this mean we shouldn’t gather people together for ideation sessions anymore? I don’t think so.  But it does mean that more emphasis should be placed on individual brainstorming prior to and after the group’s generating and sharing of new ideas.

Myth #2:  There are No Bad Ideas

Ideas should flow freely without making judgments about the quality of the ideas. Censoring criticism encourages more unrestrained associations and, therefore, increases the chances of finding more and better ideas.

Again, studies have shown just the opposite. More and better ideas are generated within an environment of debate and evaluation. Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our own viewpoints. The tricky part of conducting a judgment-based ideation session is that there are participants of varying levels of seniority and expertise, which may discourage junior team members from expressing their own ideas. Of course, this is something the facilitator needs to skillfully address when setting up the session and conveying the ground rules.

Myth #3 (sort of): Familiarity Breeds Ideas

The ideation group should include those who know each other and are well versed on the subject matter, with just a few participants defined as “creative” and perhaps having a less direct connection to the subject at hand.

The ideation studies I have conducted with clients were usually set up this way. They consisted of individuals from different departments of the firm (marketing, R&D, finance, HR, etc.) as well as a few creative ad agency, graphic arts and consultant types familiar with the client. However, research has shown that the best ideas are generated from groups that comprise a fine balance of people familiar and unfamiliar with each other. If the group is too homogenous, innovation is diminished because everyone tends to think in similar ways.  But if the group is too diverse, its members may struggle to work with each other and exchange ideas because they are simply not used to doing so.

The key is adding the right amount of diverse thought to ideations sessions. Including people from other industries, artists, writers and consumers can create an ideal environment of diverse perspectives. Be advised that there is still a touch of truth to this myth because a little familiarity can add to the comfort level of a group. This is especially true when conducting ideation groups with consumers. Rather than having a room full of strangers, it would help to invite some friends, family or co-workers into the group to add more comfort to the brainstorming.

Lehrer’s article provided me with some great insight into facilitating a market research ideation study. The complete article offers other interesting thoughts on brainstorming and creativity. If you think it’s time for your organization to reimagine how ideas are generated, let’s talk! Contact me at

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George Dichiaro

About George Dichiaro

George Dichiaro is a vice president and senior research consultant and has managed market research from the client, supplier and ad agency perspectives. His 30+ years of experience have encompassed an array of research applications with an emphasis on strategic planning/positioning, marketing communication evaluation, brand imagery and consumer/shopping behavior. Over the last 18 years, George has specialized in qualitative research and is known for his creativity and passion for uncovering consumers’ needs and motivations. George earned an MBA from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in marketing from The University of Dayton. When not running ragged as a qualitative research road warrior, George can be found finding peace on a quiet hiking trail or catching the Yale symphony in New Haven, CT.

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