Saturday, January 14, 2012

Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Love it! Can we go to lunch now?
I was delighted the other day to read a piece in the New York Times by Susan Cain, entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink, in which she slams the myth of creative brainstorming. This notion, that great ideas come out of groups, is something that's been around in advertising agencies for decades. And I thought I was alone in my prejudice against them, but apparently I haven't been. Apparently there is ample scientific evidence to back up this prejudice.

Really, after I sent this article around to a bunch of my friends in advertising, I found that the disdain for brainstorming sessions, rather than being the mark of an antisocial crank, is almost universally held. There are, at least among professional creative people, legions of us anti-brainstormers.

We all recognize the mandatory, post-lunch (or worse, trans-lunch) all-department meeting whose mandate is to come up with The Big Idea for some new campaign, or new pitch. Nothing ever comes out of these meetings except a high from sniffing the dry-erase markers. The meetings are usually called by the least creative person in the organization, some dip who is full of enthusiasm and loves to be "part of the creative process". And this moderator--let's call him Nancy--always starts by laying down the ground rules (as he sees them) for the brainstorming session, "There are no bad ideas. Everything is on the table."  Evidently, Nancy believes that this is the way we, the ones who are actually paid to come up with the ideas, do it; that when we hole up in our cubicles with our muse, we just write down every bland idea that comes into our heads and give each one serious weight. At the end of the afternoon, with the whiteboard filled with banalities and all of us drowsy from the hydrocarbon fumes, Nancy always says, "I think we've accomplished a lot today!" He always has his assistant take a picture of the whiteboard, too--you know, in case the rest of us want to refer to it later.

But as a fellow antisocial crank of mine says of these sessions, "All you think is, 'Shit! I've just lost three hours and will have to work late tonight to come up with the real idea!'"

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing (who? me?), I can categorically state, without exception, that not one big concept that I've ever had a part in has ever come as a result of a brainstorming session. Ever. That's a categorical statement because it's categorically true. Brainstorming sessions are there for people who can't come up with ideas alone, and who have no clue how they come in the first place. They either saw it done that way in a TV sitcom, or took a Creative Management course as part of their MBA curriculum. But however they came by their belief in the "creative process", they seem to exist to throw sand in the machine of real creativity.

And the results are displayed in advertising every day. Try to sit through an entire TV show, in which more than fifty percent of the broadcast is taken up with deadly dull advertising, and you can see the influence of creative brainstorming. Every ad that begins "Tired of paying too much for...," you know came right out of a brainstorm. But whenever you do happen to notice a clever or entertaining spot, you can be sure that just one or two people thought of it, wrote it, designed it--usually late at night after the brainstormtroopers went home to congratulate themselves on what a good day's work they put in. That's how it really works. A few people do the thinking. Everyone else is taking pictures of whiteboards.


  1. Could not agree with you more. Oh wait, let me get the opinion of a few more guys before I'm sure this is my thought.

  2. Love it! And right to the point...the funny thing is that when I am locked up in my office, deep in thought and trying to create something different and new, inevitably someone will come up and say "So, why are you so quiet?"
    I just smile and and say "working" and go back to my little office sanctuary.