Creativity Agency

Brainstorming doesn't work. Here's how to improve it

By Emma Grace | Managing director



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June 9, 2022 | 7 min read

'Brainstorms', 'thought showers'; call them what you will: despite some pretty bad press, they remain the go-to panic button for creatives on deadline. For The Drum's Creativity in Focus Deep Dive, PrettyGreen's co-chief exec Emma Grace tells us why they don't work and what you can do instead to harness the true power of both individual and collective thought.

The brainstorm: the original 'let’s do something so we feel like we're doing something' technique for creative agencies.

The biggest waste of time in a time-poor industry.

PrettyGreen looks at the origins of brainstorming to consider how agencies can evolve their process.

PrettyGreen looks at the origins of brainstorming to consider how agencies can evolve their process. / Robbie Noble via Unsplash

It might feel like it's been around forever, but brainstorming was invented in the 1950s by adman Alex Osborn, the O in BBDO (making him, basically, Don Draper). Osborn claimed that a brainstorm was nearly 50% more effective than solo thinking.

Although jealous that I've never birthed an actual word like ‘brainstorm’, I saw early in my career that brainstorming produces very little in terms of original thinking.

Trapped in the storm

Osborn laid out best brainstorming practices, but they're rarely followed. In my experience, the below is the norm rather than the exception:

"Oh shit, client brief! Three days to come back with ideas. Anyone around to do a brainstorm? I'll bring snacks." You read the brief properly for first time during brainstorm; go back and forth on the whole brand history; and everyone comes up with ideas they've done before or are not ‘tonally right for the brand’.

At least three people will just eat the snacks and not contribute anything. One dominant voice will come up with 80% of the thoughts, based on the contents of Ladbible that morning. Because that dominant voice is loud and authoritative, the group follows their thread of thought, building on a load of bollocks.

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You return to your desk an hour later with lots of random, totally different ideas and a mild feeling of despair.

Some tragedies of the commons

The problem with brainstorms, proven by many scientists, is that they're not actually the best environment for your brain to 'storm'.

Even with the best laid plans (the planning team providing thoughtful insights and territories; guardrails being given to the group), there are too many human barriers to group problem solving.

Social loafing (doing less in a group setting), cognitive inertia (the world according to me), introverts (I am feeling so uncomfortable right now) v extroverts (here’s another idea!), time limitation (we have an hour), production blocking (only one person can speak at the same time): all psychological and practical reasons why the collective power of thought is complex and ineffective.

Not to mention the elephant in the room: our brains have their best ideas when not actually thinking about the idea (say, in the shower).

Steinbeckian creativity in 5 steps

Another wise man (from a time before women were allowed to be wise), Nobel Prize laureate John Steinbeck, wrote in East of Eden: ”Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything”.

The best way I've found to mine ideas quickly in a group is inspired by Steinbeck’s thought.

  • First, have a tight creative brief that has already been through a rigorous strategic process to tighten the space for ideation which is pre-shared (and read) by the team 24 hours before.

  • Second, take 20 minutes of solo thinking time.

  • Third, 20 minutes of duo thinking time. Partnering with someone to share your ideas helps build on individual thoughts.

  • Fourth, 20 minutes for group 'download and build'. Share the best bits from solo and duo thinking with the group. Any builds welcome

  • Finally, an idea sharing policy to welcome more thoughts after the event, which is normally when the best ideas come.

Team matters

The ultimate way to get to the best creative ideas is simply to put the right creative minds on the right brief. And giving them time to breathe, think and be inspired by what has been done before in different sectors, in different countries and in totally different industries.

My favorite creativity story is from Scott Morrison, Boom founder and creativity unblocker extraordinaire. A consultant from Great Ormond Street was inspired, when watching an F1 pit stop, to change how they managed their shift changes and handovers. Borrowing the speed and efficacy of F1 and applying it to a hospital setting changed lives. An idea born from an individual and then built on by a group.

When the effectiveness of the brainstorm is measured against different criteria, like team motivation and company cohesion, it performs on a totally different level. It’s a great way to bring people together, make people feel involved, share sweets, and enjoy some banter.

Just don’t expect it to answer that brief.

To keep up to date with all our coverage head over to the Creativity in Focus hub and register for updates on Cannes-Do.

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