Whenever clients are seeking rapid innovations to the services they receive, or commercial challenges are looming like icebergs on the horizon, the first resort for the majority of firms is to hold a lengthy brainstorming session – potentially structured around a social event, to really get the creative juices flowing.
But a recent piece at Inc.com  suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that brainstorming is not the panacea we tend to think it is – indeed, it may be spawning more problems than it could hope to solve.
The article highlights findings from the latest edition of tech company WeTransfer’s The Ideas Report,  which surveyed 20,000 self-identified creatives to find out which sorts of conditions they feel either facilitate or hinder their production of ideas. As it turns out, the daily grind is a significant hurdle for many respondents.
“Coming in at 42%,” the report notes, “work is the biggest thing distracting people from their ideas. That’s a worrying number given almost 90% of our respondents work in creative fields which rise and fall on the power of good ideas. Jobs in tech, illustration and advertising are most likely to get in the way, and work seems to get more distracting the older we get.”
In a post on the blogging platform Medium,  Ideas Report creator Rob Anderson writes: “In the creative world we hear an awful lot about collaboration, but it seems that while working together is essential to bring an idea to life, it’s not that good for shaping ideas in the first place. 78% of creatives said they decide on their own whether an idea is any good or not (47% will do some of their own research, 31% just trust their gut). Only 18% said they ask family, friends or colleagues to help them decide if an idea if worth following up.”
He adds: “Our survey and the scientific evidence suggest that brainstorm sessions and other creative meetings may well be a waste of time. Send people off with the time and space to think properly and the quality of their ideas will probably improve.”
Could this be a signal to re-evaluate what we think we know about the effects of collaboration on the flow of workplace creativity? Are people best left to their own devices to come up with ideas so they can properly think them through? Or should we keep the faith with brainstorming and take this research with a pinch of salt?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As individuals, we’re all fertile with ideas – and flashes of inspiration do tend to light up our heads when we’re not at work. By the same token, it’s often very difficult to be creative to order – to have ideas just when they’re required at, say, three o’clock on a Monday afternoon. But I don’t think that brainstorming is necessarily meant to encourage that process. A brainstorming session is an opportunity to throw a readily formed notion out there and get some feedback, or even just to articulate it. That can be an important step for extroverts, who often don’t know what their ideas are until they start talking about them.
“Introverts, meanwhile, will often have much better, more formulated ideas. We hear a lot about introverts in workplace discourse – indeed, it’s become very trendy to be an introvert rather than an extrovert. And we can certainly appreciate how being in a room where you’re exhorted to be creative is anathema to certain individuals – particularly those who would self-identify as introverts. But what this is really all about is giving people time to think.”
Cooper explains: “If we want people to be free of the grind of work so their imaginations have more breathing space, then a shorter working week, flexible working arrangements and a genuine engagement with people’s work-life balance would all be of enormous value. Work-life balance, of course, reduces people’s stress levels, encourages them to be more loyal to their employers – and could even make them more likely to ponder work-related challenges while they’re not at work, because they’re more engaged with their jobs and want to come up with really helpful stuff.”
She adds: “Brainstorming is not really the problem here. Collaboration moves things along from an idea to something that’s actually happening. It helps to shape the idea’s practical application – and often, the outcome is quite different from the initial idea anyway. So by itself, that process is neither lacking, nor at fault. It’s more to do with ensuring that work arrangements provide necessary space for the emergence of ideas that people can then bring into collaborative scenarios.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on creativity