The brainstorm is broken: How to improve your company’s idea culture

In 1953, the book Applied Imagination introduced a revolutionary concept: brainstorming. The author, an advertising executive named Alex Osborn, described a new methodology for problem-solving that would allow a group of people to contribute ideas and arrive ultimately at the best solution.

ARTICLE | 4m read
June 29, 2020

Decades later, brainstorming is part of our everyday work culture, and Osborn’s book a touchstone of modern workplace theory—and with good reason. A recent study from McKinsey found that the most creative companies see above-average financial performance, showing how vital harnessing creativity is to enterprises’ success. But it turns out that brainstorming might not be the miracle it was touted to be. In the last decade, research has born out the shortcomings of the approach, as well as better ways for organizations to capture and focus creativity at scale.

Now, as employees and managers adapt to a distributed working model, it’s especially critical for leadership to promote a culture of ideas. But just because the brainstorm is broken doesn’t mean it’s beyond rescue. Here’s how your organization can fix it.

Understand how creativity really work

“Here’s how people are creative: They have some information and knowledge in their memories. Then they retrieve that to help them solve problems,” says Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Markman is the founder of a university program combining cognitive science and business practice. He’s spent his career studying and writing about how brains work at work.

Fundamentally, Markman says, to be creative is to be able to consider more than one “correct” answer, because there is more than one route within the brain to solve a problem. This means brainstorming—which tends to focus on finding one “right” idea—can be counterproductive.

And consider this: A landmark study concluded that the brainstorming method limits creativity to the first ideas mentioned, leaving participants feeling discouraged if others don’t contribute, and ultimately generating fewer ideas since only one person can speak at a time.

For employers, simply understanding that each employee goes through this process to cultivate ideas is the first step to finding ways to unlock, and nurture, creativity.

Stop putting creativity on the calendar

According to a recent Gallup report, two-thirds of workers feel like they are expected to be inventive, but less than one-third actually have the time to be so.

MODERN ORGANIZATIONS ARE ORDERED AROUND THE PRINCIPLE OF DOING THINGS THAT ARE EFFICIENT, REPEATABLE AND RELIABLE.THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM WITH TRYING TO BE INNOVATIVE IS THAT IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

Art Markman
Professor of Psychology
University of Texas at Austin

Essentially, creativity can’t be put on a to-do list. A brainstorm session can’t be scheduled with the expectation that the best, most creative solve for a problem will emerge. “A lot of creative problem-solving is wandering in the desert,” Markman adds.

Markman points to the famous story of Archimedes and the crown. Needing a way to measure the volume of a gold crown, the Greek mathematician couldn’t think his way to a solution. It was only later while taking a bath, seeing the water rise as he descended, that Archimedes realized the solution to measuring the volume of an irregularly shaped object like a crown: measuring the displacement of water.

Applied to the workplace, the moral of this ancient tale is to ensure your creative thinkers are not burdened by tedious tasks that rob them of opportunities to think critically. “If you’re not willing to hire a few extra people so that everyone’s got a little bit of extra bandwidth, you’re not going to get innovation,” Markman says. As a potential solve, software platforms that help automate those tedious tasks can help free creatives to do their best solutionizing.

A LOT OF CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING IS WANDERING IN THE DESERT

Art Markman
Professor of Psychology
University of Texas at Austin

Promote tools and initiatives that can reduce stress.

Giving employees more time to think is not just good for morale. It’s good for business.

Being distracted and stressed can weigh on an organization’s health. In fact, according to research commissioned by Citrix, 67% of respondents said being “always on” had a significant negative impact on health and wellbeing. Markman argues that stress impedes access to our working memory, which means we are less creative. No brainstorm is going to solve for deep-rooted stress. But how does leadership approach reducing stress and increasing creative bandwidth across an entire company?

Take Google, one of the most innovative organizations in the world, and its now-famous 20% Time program. The initiative allows every Google employee to spend 20% of their time working on a project that doesn’t have to relate to their actual job. Google has a laundry list of groundbreaking products born of this 20% program: Gmail and Google News, to name a few.

An organization that prizes its employees’ creative problem-solving skills will lean on technology and make no apologies for it. Having access to the best workplace technologies was cited by 81% of respondents as giving them the ability to innovate and be creative1. Working together, IT and HR can implement software solutions that declutter employees’ schedules, automate rote tasks and free the enterprise’s most vital thinkers to do what they do best: creatively solve problems.

1Ibid

67%

Respondents that said being "always on" had a significant negative impact on health and wellbeing.

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