New Thinking about Brainstorming and Creativity and Its Impact on Problem Solving

In our work with organizations to help them implement a culture for innovation and a process for innovation, we often find that people are confused about the meaning and differences between the terms “creativity,” “creative thinking” and “brainstorming.”

As well, we often hear comments such as, “They aren’t very creative” and “They don’t have any ideas so brainstorming won’t work” or, “The environment is not conducive to creativity.”

Let’s dispel some of the myths around brainstorming and creativity and identify some approaches that will quickly and effectively get your team’s creativity flowing. We’ll start with some basic definitions.

Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its member(s). The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1963 book Applied Imagination. Osborn claimed that brainstorming was more effective than individuals working alone in generating ideas, although more recent research has questioned this conclusion. (Wikipedia)

Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc.) that has some kind of value. What counts as “new” may be in reference to the individual creator, or to the society or domain within which the novelty occurs. What counts as “valuable” is similarly defined in a variety of ways. (Wikipedia)

Creative Thinking is original thinking. Creative solutions to our workplace problems come to us at odd moments and as unexpected breakthroughs. A breakthrough may come when you are walking, driving in traffic, waking up or about to fall asleep.
Edward De Bono, a world authority on developing creative thinking skills, believes that anyone can learn to be creative. When you pay attention to your creative flashes, you’ll find fresh new ways of thinking about workplace problems. Unfortunately, most of us usually don’t pay much attention to our creative flashes, nor do we do anything about them. We may discount them with thoughts like, “that will never work,” or “they’ll never accept my idea.”

To be original in your thinking takes time and focus and you won’t always do original thinking sitting at your computer keyboard. More often than not, creative thinking springs from frustration. Therefore, give the creative process time to work and encourage your employee’s creativity by giving them the time to think.

Research on Creativity and Brainstorming

Traditional brain theory divided the brain into a left and right side. However, more recent research shows the brain as functioning with “intelligent memory” in which analysis and intuition work together in the mind in all modes of thought. There is no left brain; there is no right. There is only learning and recall, in various combinations, throughout the entire brain. (Eric Kandel; “Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory”)

Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military scholar (“On War”, 1832) identified the presence of mind as being akin to the calm state that precedes a flash of insight. That’s why we get our best ideas not in formal brainstorming meetings but in the shower, or driving, or falling asleep at night – when our brain is relaxed and wandering, instead of focused on a particular problem.

Brainstorming works best when everyone comes together to share their ideas after they’ve had time to work independently, since groups tend to be better at shaping and building upon ideas.

Effective Brainstorming

The traditional approach to brainstorming is fundamentally flawed and completely ignores the value of creative thinking. Traditionally it brings groups or teams together into a room, and presents them with a challenge or problem; then asks everyone to brainstorm ideas for how to overcome the challenge or problem. While we may that think we’re being innovative by asking everyone to initially do their brainstorming, individually, on post-it notes, the initial process is wrong. Although it’s better than group brainstorming, on a flip chart, it’s still not the best approach.

Research has shown that individuals need time to “think” in order to be creative. So where do we begin? Start by having everyone brainstorm on their own—but not in a room with everyone else, but rather, very much on their own. Present them with some thought provoking question(s) to get their creativity going. For example:

  • “If our organization/department was considered to be the best place to work, what would we have to do to get there?”
  • What today seems impossible to do but if could be done, will fundamentally change what our organization (plant, department, etc.) does?
  • What is possible to do but is not being done?
  • What do we wish we could do, achieve, accomplish?
  • If our organization becomes the “ideal” workplace, what would we have to do to get there?
  • What are our hopes, dreams, wishes, ideas and visions of what we’d like to do?

“Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” is how Electronic Arts designer Joe Nuckolls gets the creativity started.

Once people have had an opportunity to think and create, it only then becomes possible to have them share their ideas; after which the group can group the ideas into similar themes or categories for further evaluation.

Great Ideas Come from Wishes and Dreams

Most often, great ideas come from a vision, a thought, a dream or a wish. You know what it’s like—you wake up in the middle of the night and thankfully, you had paper on your night table so you write it down. Or, you’re having a shower and a great idea pops into your head. Or, perhaps, you’re driving and you’ve got more ideas. Or, you are fortunate enough to work in an organization that has given you time to just create or dream.

Everyone’s creative – just in different ways. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” In this view, individual brainstorming represents that 1% inspiration, so try to avoid trying to be creative in group settings.

Bringing the Ideas Together

The importance of team for making creative ideas blossom cannot be overlooked. Bringing ideas forward in a team setting is the beginning of gaining buy-in and is much more effective than pursing problem solving alone; as an individual, or in an independent stream. Great innovations tend to happen in teams. Great problems are almost always solved by a group.

The lone inventor is a myth. During the life of Thomas Edison he patented 1,093 inventions. However, he did not work alone; this is a bit of a misconception. His team of talented workers assisted him all hours of the day and night. They had the skills to take his ideas, and through an innovation process, bring them to reality. His laboratory at Menlo Park was referred to as an invention factory. However, he created the ideas and his team put these ideas through an innovation process to transform them from concept to reality.

Organizing the Ideas in the Team

Once the ideas are created, it’s time to work as a team. The team will organize all of the ideas, individually generated, into groups of similar ideas or themes. There’ll be little discussion at this point. They will title each group in order to identify the general theme of these ideas. Then the team members will discuss and debate these ideas, ensuring that any additional ideas that are generated have been added to the groups. No ideas will be eliminated unless they are exact duplications.

Next, the team will put each group of ideas through a problem solving process. Which process to use is dependent upon whether these ideas have been generated as part of a Business Process Reengineering exercise, Innovation exercise, Strategic Planning exercise, or other goal. Essentially, each approach will require the team to identify the benefits associated with each group of ideas as well as: challenges or risks associated with the idea, opportunities the idea(s) offer and what the plan is to put them into action.


It’s important to allow employees time for independent creative thinking. If you give everyone the individual time to think, you’ll likely increase the amount of creativity among your team. The quality and quantity of ideas will be increased.

It can often take a week before everyone is ready to bring their individual ideas together and move to the next steps. Once the individual thinking time is over, it is important to come together as a team to review, consider, organize and problem solve the ideas; this is the critical element (i.e., the 99% perspiration as Edison says) for moving your innovative ideas from vision to reality.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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