BrainstormingIt’s popular. It’s a classic. Those who endorse it say it’s an effective technique for generating many ideas but not a standalone method, so it should be used with other creative techniques. Those who criticize it say it generates mediocre ideas that are likely never implemented as solutions to problems. But this 60-year old technique called brainstorming – whose effectiveness is an evergreen hot topic among researchers, users, and critics – helps to identify project risks.

Brainstorming – The Definition

According to Merriam-Webster, brainstorming is “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; also: the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem”.

Brainstorming – The Story

A technique with a catchy name, brainstorming has been around since the 1950s when Alex Osborn’s book Your Creative Power was published, becoming a best-seller. This book may be “an amalgam of pop science and business anecdote”, as Jonah Lehrer called it in a New Yorker article that triggered lots of e-ink on discussion forums, but brainstorming is easy to implement and generates many ideas. Besides that, it’s a great team-building exercise, which may also justify its popularity with businesses. A brainstorming session emphasizes the quantity, not quality, of ideas and one of the rules to brainstorming sessions is no criticism so that people do not fear their ideas are rejected by the group and, thus, limit their imagination.

Brainstorming Types

There’s individual and group brainstorming, with individual brainstorming being better for problem solving and group brainstorming better for identifying project risks. Group brainstorming draws from the intelligence and experiences of more people but ideas expressed loudly may be biased since people do worry about others’ opinions even if one of Osborn’s rules for group brainstorming is “no criticism”. Online brainstorming—a sub-type of group brainstorming—uses e-brainstorming tools to help remote teams share their ideas in real time.

To Criticize or Not to Criticize?

No criticism during a brainstorming session implies the lack of negative feedback, which for some people equals positive feedback. Everyone participating in a brainstorming session that follows the no-criticism rule is likely going to feel that they contributed equally to the session, that their ideas are just as good as anyone else’s ideas. But that is hardly ever true. Researchers, such as Prof. Nemeth from Berkeley, showed that debate stimulates creativity; hence, the lack of criticism in a brainstorming session does not promote creative ideas. However, brainstorming doesn’t always result in creative implementable solutions to problems because its purpose is to generate lots of ideas rather than good ideas. There are creativity techniques promoting criticism, and some may be the right alternatives to brainstorming depending on the situation and the problem needing a creative solution.

Brainstorming Is Still Trendy for Project Managers

Despite criticism, brainstorming remains a useful technique for risk identification, as the project team needs to come up with as many possible risks to the project as possible. Creativity here is not important, as the project manager will later have to analyze the identified risks and decide which to mitigate and which not.

About Cristina Neagu

Cristina Neagu, PhD, is a freelance editor and proofreader, and a Certified Associate in Project Management. She loves creative writing and managed a virtual team of writers for three years. When she's not working, she likes to read, spend time outdoors, and travel. Visit her website, www.languageediting.com, or contact her on LinkedIn.