(Long slightly rambling post ahead)

I’ve been enjoying Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius. Keith’s singing to the choir of course, as he’s big on things like improvisation. His central theme is looking at how ideas are generated in teams, rather than going down the lone genius path.

The perils of storms

He pulls together some interesting research and thinking on the activity of Brainstorming. Classic brainstorming was invented by adman, Alex Osborn, with four rules: No criticism; the wilder the idea the better; go for quantity – don’t worry about quality for now; go for combinations and developments of previous ideas. I’ve never felt terribly at ease with those rules and there’s a fair amount of evidence that – even by his own criteria – Osborn’s rules don’t work as intended.

Curiously, the rules work better if people work alone rather than in a group! Also, if groups are given a steer towards “valuable ideas” – ie if they are told criteria for success rather than “anything goes” they appear to generate fewer but better ideas. So groups may actually work better at evaluating than pure, quantitative generation.

Sawyer outlines the reasons for shortcomings in group brainstorms: Production blocking: fighting for time in a group means you have less energy to think of your own ideas. There’s also topic fixation: groups tend to cover few areas than sets of people working alone.

Social inhibition: I guess we all know what it’s like to be uncomfortable in a group!

Then there’s what Sawyer calls social loafing – people feel able to leave it to others in a group to do the heavy lifting.

This all fits well with my experience of brainstorming. I used to like it but over time I just felt more and more uncomfortable with it. I’d see reams of flipcharts filled up with a vague promise by someone to write them up, but a real sense that we were going through the motions.

What happens in groups…

What goes on in groups is a source of endless fascination to me, and I think many processes for making them work don’t really correspond to real life. It’s not that I reject models as such, it’s just that I think they often stop us from sensing the ambiguity and richness of real life.

Anyhow, when I’m asked to support idea generation I try to point out that ideas are not generated in a vacuum. They arise out of communication. If we set goals about ideas, we may ignore the qualities of relationship that actually support creative thinking. A session that generates loads of ideas but leaves people miserable and out of touch with each other may be valuing the golden egg at the cost of the goose.

I love improv work because I feel it helps us to feel the relationship part of the deal as well as the output.

Sugar or solemnity?

A lot of innovation companies I see veer to one end of a spectrum or another: One set are all sugar-and-caffeine, as if creativity is all about stimulation and adrenaline. Others seem so intent on being taken seriously that they slide into a terrible solemnity of diagrams and metrics.

I was talking to Jack Leith the other day. He put it quite well: we seem to miss that it’s just in our nature to be creative, we don’t have to force it yet we keep inventing ways to do just that. Martin and I are Open Space junkies because we like to strip the formal structure down and get out of people’s way. It’s not about forcing the fun nor is it about suppressing it.


A lot of this comes down to holding, a word rich in meaning for me. It covers the somatic: how do I physically hold myself, how aware can I be of how I’m being shaped by what’s round me? And it covers holding as in beliefs (“we hold these truths…); being aware of how we’re thinking. How we hold each other in relationship is going to have a big impact not just on the ideas we have, but on our willingness to take risks to make them happen.


The other thing I’d lob in here is noticing. Sometimes I think instead of having innovation programmes, we might try noticing progammes. A friend working with Unilver points out that many of its best innovations don’t come from a central unit but are discovered in the outposts of the empire… and someone pays attention and helps them spread. I like the notion of uncovering ideas, noticing them… rather than frantically trying to make them. When I work with groups, I might try for some simple reflective activity or time to support that kind of sensibility.

If you’re remotely into emergence, it’s probably a good thing to get better at noticing stuff. Instead of dismissing events as unproductive, get better at seeing what was produced. People who slag off meetings as having no outcome are clearly not paying attention: there’s always lots of outcomes but you need to look for them.

I sometimes run a very simple noticing exercise and it can have quite an impact. When people notice or are noticed (I could say touch or touched) by another, stuff happens. That kind of attention can be lost if we’re trying to hard to be productive.


And have I mentioned this before? Could we maybe start some of our meetings with an acceptance that nothing useful might happen? (If for no other reason than begging questions about what we mean by useful?) For me, that might help take some of the pressure off and actually invoke a deeper sense of possibility.

And then we might truly allow the other possibility, that something amazing could happen. Without us burying ourselves in trite rules, acres of flip charts and every size and shape of Post It note ever invented.

6 thoughts on “Brainstorms

  1. Anders Abrahamsson

    Hi, Johnnie,

    One of my mentors (professor in entrepreneurship and business development, Bengt Johannisson, recently got the FSF-NUTEK award for his three decades plus research on innovation/creativity/entrepreneurship), constantly refers to a finding he did with challenging kids in two different communities here in Sweden – one being held as “less entrepreneurial” a semi-sleeping rural community only relying on one dominant employer with less entrepreneurial drive, one being held as the epitome of entrepreneurship, even coining the term itself when we refer to the phenomenon in Sweden – the (“Gnosj√∂ Spirit”).

    The kids were challenged with an exercise from Edward de Bono, grand old nestor of the creativity heralding – “try to find new, creative ways to walk the dog”.

    The finding was clear, from the excessive and fun drawings – No Difference, I say NO difference in beteween the kids groups of creative solutions!

    So – forcing someone to be creative, is rather stupid. We just have to remind ourselves of the embracing sensitive playfulness we had as kids. And when finding it, sticking to it, not to let it slip away when refound.

    And noticing others, yeah! – collaborative creativity goes hand in hand with love and respect.

    Thanks for sharing, J., your post resounds and resonates with my experience as well :).



    Anders Abrahamsson | RE:LOVE THE WORLD

    Sustainopreneurial* Facilitator / Global Knowledge Nomad / Qualitative Intentional Networker

    *Sustainopreneurship = Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Sustainability

  2. Simon

    Interesting post. From my experience, brainstorming sessions work up to a point. I find they tend not be too useful (though depends on what you consider useful) when it is just throwing spaghetti at the wall, for reasons that you have outlined in the perils section.

    I find the following helps a successful brainstorm:

    – Don’t invite everyone. Pick people due to specific attributes

    – Designate a leader to allow tangents but ultimately guide the conversation (not just write stuff down)

    – Have a particular goal in mind throughout

    – Have two short sessions with a break of at least 24 hours in between, rather than one long one. This gives time to absorb the ideas, and you never know when the “big idea” will hit



  3. richard


    I think this is a really important post, that deserves some long conversations.

    But, as a very quick first reaction, two points come to mind.

    I have found with both brainstorming sessions and other kinds of meetings too, that the significant thinking comes after the meeting – the meeting acts as stimulus for individual thought. What I have noticed is that very often the way things are structured do not allow this post meeting thinking to be captured and act on.

    Secondly, your point about noticing. I think a “noticing programme” might in itself be the most successful innovation any organisation could introduce, simply as a way of improving its management.

    In terms of innovation as you are discussing it here I have a whole collection of stories about 3M that I will try and dig out and send to you where new products or new uses for products have been developed by paying attention to what customers were doing or reframing “accidents” that happened in the lab.

    I seem to be the first person commenting on this post, but I hope there are many more, since I think you have really hit upon something here.

  4. richard

    I seem to have been a bit behind the curve with my claim to be the first person posting here – never the less my sentiment holds – let’s hope this starts a much wider conversation

  5. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments and shared experience. I liked your recipe Simon, especially the idea of a pause between sessions. Actually, I think that’s a good idea for all sorts of things groups do.

    A big theme for me is to avoid turning any thing into a ritual that loses spontaneity.

  6. Jack Martin Leith

    Hiya Johnnie. Thanks for the namecheck! In case anyone’s confused, Jack Leith and Martin are the same bloke: this old git sat at the keyboard. Martin Leith mutated into Jack Martin Leith some 18 months ago. If you’re curious to know why, drop me an email.

    The bit of your post that resonated the most was “generate fewer but better ideas”.

    It seems to me that there are three main approaches to ideation (does anyone dislike that term as much as I do?) and innovation:

    1) Formulaic

    This is the prevailing approach to ideation in organisations. It’s based on cause-and-effect thinking and an underlying belief – usually a tacit one – that if you produce a large quantity of ideas, there will be one or two high potential ones in there somewhere. The methods used are mechanistic – usually Osborn-style brainstorming or one of its many derivatives.

    2) Systemic

    This is the emerging innovation practice in organisations, and embodies the principles of systems thinking. A subset of the stakeholder system thinks up ideas in response to a design specification so that fewer but more focused ideas are produced. The methods used are conversational. Typically the ideators (another dreadful word) work in pairs. Open innovation, currently flavour of the month in the innovation world, falls into this category.

    3) Intuitive

    This approach, what some people call co-creation, is still very much “out there”. The boundaries of the stakeholder system are extended to include the natural world, and the unseen forces of the universe are harnessed to produce a single idea that bridges the gap between what the world greatly needs, and what the innovator or entrepreneur passionately wants to create. The methods for coming up with this idea include meditation, silent reflection, storytelling, Shamanic practices such as 5 Rhythms, martial arts, haiku writing and walking in nature.

    The late great Edward Matchett wrote a wonderful little book, Creative Action, which describes in practical terms how to create in partnership with what I am calling the unseen forces.

    I strongly suspect that the most powerful ideas that have greatly enriched the world came about through the third of these approaches.

    Thanks for raising this very important topic.

    It was good to hang out with you last week.


    Bristol, UK


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