Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

business team

Brainstorming is probably the most widely used method for generating ideas in the world today. However, almost always, it is either very inefficient or doesn’t yield any useful results at all. The success rate (the proportion of ideas produced that are classified as „good“) of brainstorming sessions is variously quoted as being between 0.1% and 1%. In one article which appeared in the German magazine Brand Eins, an ideation workshop yielded only one or two good ideas out of a total of 1500! Not surprisingly, Brainstorming has developed a bad reputation, and the announcement of a corporate „creative workshop“ is often met with scepticism and resistance.

So why don’t Brainstorming and its many variants work? The reason is simple: because they don’t provide the participants with any means to overcome their mental obstacles to generating new ideas. Without such help, participants can only (re)produce the ideas that they already had in their heads anyway before they entered the room.

To understand these mental obstacles, we need to know that our minds store concepts in a network similar to a network of friends and acquaintances. Concepts which have meaningful relationships are connected to each other by a link, whereas concepts that are not related can only be accessed by traversing the sequence of intermediate concepts like in the game „Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon“.

There are two mental obstacles to creating ideas: Cognitive Immobility and Occupational Blindness.

Cognitive Immobility essentially means that as soon as you form a concept of your ideation task, the only concepts you can directly access are those to which to which it is directly linked. These will, however, not yield new ideas. In fact, good ideas are to be found by unexpected combinations of the given situation with distant concepts. For example, the parking assistant to be found in many cars was invented by imitating how bats use ultrasound to navigate at night. „Bats“ are almost certainly a long way away from „automobiles“ in everybody’s cognitive networks.

Occupational blindness means that we are so used to the relationships between concepts, that we are unable to conceive of „alternative worlds“ in which these relationships do not hold. However, innovative ideas are often obtained by breaking assumptions about familiar things and being able to see them in a new way. For example, leasing could only be invented by breaking free from the assumption that having the use of expensive equipment is necessarily preceded by a lump-sum purchase.

The key to overcoming Cognitive Immobility and Occupational Blindness is to introduce changes of perspective into the ideation process. Changes of perspective provide the workshop participants with new associations or ways of looking at the problem. A change of perspective might be as simple as a random word or image, or as subtle as a targeted removal of a deep-seated assumption or belief about the current situation. Devising effective changes of perspective is the most demanding aspect of ideation workshop design and – in our experience – a very rare ability.

For this reason, no ideation workshop should use brainstorming (except perhaps as a warming-up exercise to get existing ideas out of people’s heads.) Professional providers of high-quality ideation services will delve deeply into the problem to be solved and devise a set of questions that are designed to overcome Cognitive Immobility and Occupational Blindness. One result of this intensive preparation is a vastly improved success rate with the ideas obtained: In our experience, the quotient of good ideas is always at least 10%, which is a factor of 10 to 100 better than using Brainstorming! The corresponding savings in time and effort are significant – not to mention the indirect benefits obtained from the feelings of achievement and contribution experienced by participants.



Kompaktwissen Ideenfindung


How To Launch A Bird And Not An Egg


Yesterday I attended the 11th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation in Brussels. The Conference focused on „how you can make innovations work“. I gave a Workshop on the Conference. In the Workshop I presented five thesis which enable you to improve the front end of innovation. You can find my presentation on Prezi: How To Launch A Bird And Not An Egg

P.S. Edward de Bono gave also a speech on the Conference. He is the creativity guru. It was very impressive to see how he thinks and works. Thank you.

The Six Reasons Why Companies Buy Services


Most of Zephram’s clients are in B2B sectors, and probably the most common type of project we do is helping such clients develop new offers. As an aid to generating and evaluating ideas, it is useful to understand exactly why a company would purchase a B2B service. The following list gives you the answer:

  1. Outsource a secondary process. By outsourcing secondary activities, companies can concentrate on their core business and core competencies. Examples are cleaning services or facility management.
  2. Utilize specialist knowledge. Especially in the case of unique situations or for projects, it can be more efficient to buy in specialist knowledge that is not available within the company. Consultants are an example of this type of service.
  3. Flexibility. Specialised service providers are more able to adapt to changing circumstances and possess state of the art knowledge. This is often true, for example, for IT services, where the software and hardware base is continually changing.
  4. Dealing with load spikes. Projects and other load spikes can be accomodated with temporary external help. This solution is flexible and avoids fixed costs. This is one of the reasons for job agencies.
  5. Internal solution is too expensive or difficult. Internal bureaucracy and cost structures can make an internal solution more expensive (or complicated) than an external one. This can be the case for large corporations, which have high salary overheads or during hiring freezes.
  6. Impartiality. For some types of project, it is important to have impartial input or facilitation. This could be to maintain neutrality or to overcome occupational myopia. Examples are mediation in the first case, or an innovation service such as ours in the second.

This list can be very useful for examining and developing new service ideas in depth and for estimating their market potential.

The first five entries can be found in the book Business-to-Business Marketing by Michel, Naudé, Salle and Valla. The sixth is an addition of our own.

An Observation on Disruptive Innovation


During a presentation on innovation management recently, I was discussing the fact that disruption does not only affect the disrupted industry, but the disrupting organisation as well. When a new offer obeys radically different rules, the environment needed to create it successfully must often conform to a new set of rules as well. Skunkworks and spinoffs are two well-known solutions to this problem.

The text on my slide which summarised this discussion read:

Innovation is becoming increasingly disruptive – not only for the disruptees, but also for the disruptors themselves. Organisations may no longer discard a good idea with the argument, „This idea does not fit us.“ Instead, they must ask, „How can we fit ourselves to this idea?

Looking over the slide once again, I think it makes the point quite neatly.

How to Create Ideas for a Computer Game

2 Girls playing video game

This is an exercise I do with students in my university course „Idea Engineering“. Its goal is to demonstrate how a well-chosen change of perspective can make generating new ideas very easy indeed.

Suppose we have been given the task of coming up with an idea for a simple computer game. By „simple“, I mean the kind that is created for a mobile device or for Facebook.

The script for the idea generation consists of three steps:

  1. Think of an interesting adjective.
  2. Who or what has this property?
  3. What does he/she/it want to achieve?

Your answers to questions 2. and 3. are your idea for a computer game!

Here are three examples:

  1. Devastating,
  2. A volcano,
    A swamp,
    An angel.
  3. Bury cities ith its lava,
    Trap unwary travellers,
    Protect an innocent mortal from harm.

So the stories for the three computer games might be:

  • By directing its eruptions, a volcano tries to cover as much of its surroundings as possible with lava.
  • By using misdirections, a swamp lures unwary travellers into its quicksand traps.
  • An angel has to prevent all sorts of accidents happening to a unsuspecting character as it goes about its daily business.

In this case, the change of perspective was created from two simple observations about computer games:

  1. Unusual protagonists (secret agent / mad scientist / blob of amoeba) yield interesting games.
  2. The protagonist is trying to achieve some kind of goal (kill enemies, collect money, traverse an obstacle course).

This exercise is easy and fun, and never fails to generate good ideas. However, at the same time, it makes an important point about scriptwriting for idea generation, namely the importance of a well-chosen change of perspective. To emphasise this point, I usually begin the demonstration with classical brainstorming by asking, „Who can give me an interesting idea for a computer game?“ Of course, the results of this are meagre at best, and the students are easily convinced that by comparison, trying to create ideas without the support from a change of perspective can be inefficient and difficult.

Of course, in general, finding productive changes of perspective is not as straightforward as it is in this example. At Zephram, we invest a lot of time in analysing our clients‘ ideation task and producing a script for the innovation workshop which contains a varied and productive mixture of changes of perspective. The result is a more stimulating workshop and a significantly higher quota of good ideas.

Six Innovation Paradoxes

Comedy Tragedy

In their book Praxiswissen Innovationsmanagement (Practical Knowledge [for] Innovation Management) authors Oliver Gassmann and Philipp Sutter give a list of 17 so-called „innovation paradoxes“. These are observations on various aspects of corporate innovation which contain (apparent) contradictions.

Here are my six favourite paradoxes from Gassmann and Sutters‘ list. The translation, rephrasing and comments are my own.

  • The costs for product development are increasing, but product lifetimes are getting shorter. Due to increased competition, the profitable lifetimes of many products are getting shorter and shorter, deceasing the income gained from them. At the same time, owing to increasing product complexity, the development costs are increasing. The overall result is continually shrinking margins from innovation.
  • Innovation must be customer-oriented,  but customers can’t give you ideas for substantial innovations. New products and services can only be successful if they serve the needs and wishes of the customer. However, with the exception of simple wishes for improvments, customers cannot tell you what they need. As Henry Ford famously said, „If I had asked people what they want, they would have told me ‚faster horses‘„. This observation has led to several new approaches to obtaining ideas for innovation such as anthropological and „live-in“ studies of customers, and the „jobs-to-be-done“ approach.
  • Inventors often do not profit from their inventions. This is a favourite complaint in Germany, where (it is claimed) many important inventions come from, including the CD, the fax machine and the MP3 audio format, and yet German companies did not significantly benefit from these inventions (Japanese and US companies did.) In the case of the MP3 format, the inventors (the Fraunhofer Research Centers) do receive royalties from patent licensing, however the „real“ money from this invention is now being made by Apple via their iPod / iTunes strategy. In order to be commercially successful, an invention needs the right environment, the right business model and an innovation management which is able to develop the invention into an innovation this attractive to the market.
  • Innovative companies are profitable, and yet most innovation projects fail. It is now well known that the most profitable companies in their respective markets are those with the highest innovation rate. It is also well-known that the success rate of innovations (both at the development and at the market stage) is very low (figures varying 1 in 7 to 1 in 100 are quoted.) Innovation is high-risk game, since it involves many crucial variables which cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. For this reason, innovation managers treat innovations like venture capitalists do: they manage a portfolio of projects, in order spread their risk.
  • Past success is a significant barrier for future success. When a company has developed a successful new product, it installs devotes resources to maintain the competitivenss and profitablility of that product for as long as possible. This leads to mind-sets and policies which can be hostile to new ideas, especially if these appear to threaten the current major revenue generator. One well-known aspect of this problem is the fear of cannibalism.
  • People who question the status quo are indespensible for innovation, and yet companies are often hostile to them. Significant innovation always involves questioning the status quo and suggesting alternatives which may contradict „the way things are done here“. However, since companies must be designed for efficiency with respect to the current line of products, the status quo has a high level of rationalisation. For this reason, innovative thinking is frequently felt to be incomfortable and inappropriate, perhaps even trouble-making. This has given rise to the call for the the so-called „ambidextrous corporation“, which can simultaneously achieve streamlined efficiency with its current offers and the freedom and creativity to experiment with innovative ideas.

Link to the book by Gassmann and Sutter at the publisher’s website (in German).