'Brainswarming' Creator Misses Brainstorming's Point

Posted by Robert Celaschi on 4/8/14 9:00 AM

Alternative to brainstorming has merit but isn't a substitute, say Innovationship's Leon Segal and Scott Underwood. 


Tony McCaffrey says he plans to offer an online platform for brainswarmingBrainswarming could be a useful approach to generating ideas, Segal says. "We also can see the idea-generating benefits of sitting with a good glass of wine, or a walk on the beach, even good old fashioned brainstorming."

On the Harvard Business Review's website, Dr. Tony McCaffrey (@DrTonyMcCaffreyis touting something he calls "brainswarming" as a way to generate ideas. Before he gets down to the business of explaining his method, however, McCaffrey flatly states that he developed it because "brainstorming doesn't work." To Leon Segal and Scott Underwood, that sweeping claim is a big red flag.

"We love all manners of idea generation, and the more, the merrier," Segal says, "But in coming up with a new way to generate ideas, why try to shoot down something else?"

McCaffrey claims that talking out loud in a brainstorming session is inefficient. He says extroverts will always shove the introverts aside, even if the group has a talented facilitator.

Instead of talking, McCaffrey's brainstorming method uses sticky notes and a large board. Problems are listed across the top of the board, and resources are listed across the bottom. Each person can post an idea on a note, either working from the top down or from the bottom up. Then people can post even more ideas building on the notes already there. He claims that brainswarming typically generates 115 ideas in 15 minutes, versus 100 ideas per hour with traditional brainstorming.

Quality, not quantity

Those numbers might be impressive if the main purpose of brainstorming were to get more ideas, explains Underwood. The real point of brainstorming, however, is to get better ideas. "Quantity is a definite goal, but it's not a competition as to which method produces the most. And when people produce ideas individually and then come together to share them, how many will be mere variations on the same idea? In brainstorming, people build on one another's ideas by talking. In McCaffrey's model, they write notes. We don't really see a fundamental difference, especially since ideas get written down in a brainstorming session too."

Segal notes that McCaffrey offers a real life example of how an electric utility could use brainswarming to solve the problem of heavy ice forming on power lines. "He admits, "'We don't know for sure whether using brainswarming would have helped.'"

"Alphas" are mighty familiar to facilitators

McCaffrey also says that dominant participants take over the meeting, no matter how talented the facilitator. "One suspects he hasn't actually seen a talented facilitator," Underwood says. Adds Segal, "It's important to recognize that the participants can be skilled, too, and in a good group of skilled participants, people know how to leave space for each other."

"The fact is, brainstorming does work. That's why it has survived any number of academic obituaries and 'improvements.' Learn to do it well and your organization will have many direct and indirect benefits," Underwood concludes.

Sutton and Hargadon publish on effectiveness of brainstorming

When McCaffrey claims that brainstorming doesn't work, one of the citations scrolling in the background is "Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm." This study showed that brainstorming -- done right -- is extremely effective, and that a purely quantitative analysis is the wrong way to measure it. The 1996 paper is by Robert Sutton, a prolific author, professor at Stanford and co-founder of the d.school; and Andrew Hargadon, a professor at UC Davis's School of Management and a senior fellow at the Kaufmann Foundation. 

Left out of the picture

Underwood says that perhaps more important is what McCaffrey doesn't discuss about brainstorming:

  • Innovation: Planning for good brainstorms ensures the inclusion of diverse minds, from outside of the project team as well as some core members. A good facilitator sets up the conditions so that multiple voices are heard.
  • Collaboration: a brainstorm is a good first step for creating cohesive teams, especially if they are from different departments.
  • Culture: There is also the social benefit of regular brainstorming. It draws in rookies and veterans, and members of otherwise less-communicative groups.
  • Knowledge sharing: Diverse-group brainstorms act as trading posts, so that ideas and initiatives get carried to and from far-flung corners of the organization.

Use all the tools

Brainswarming could be a useful approach to generating ideas, Segal says. "We also can see the idea-generating benefits of sitting with a good glass of wine, or a walk on the beach, even good old fashioned brainstorming. Whatever works for you is what you should do. From our experience over a couple of decades of ideation and innovation, we know that different cultures resonate with different methods. That's also true within specific organizations. Different projects, different teams and different individuals respond differently to given settings. So explore adding the brainswarming method to your toolbox, but always use the best tool for the specific job."


Note: Robert Celaschi is a veteran journalist and member of our marketing team. As we have internal discussions at Innovationship, our marketing team puts those thoughts in blog form so that we can share our ideas in a timely fashion. Please let us know your opinion about this prototype for future blogging on this site.


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Topics: Ideation & Brainstorming