The Real Role of Brainstorming in Innovation

Innovation, by its very definition, conjures up images of something very new and extremely different. And, yes, successful innovation is new and different. However, according to my 25+ years researching business success and failure patterns, the most successful innovations are not those that are most different. In fact, wildly different innovations, where too much is changed, are among the biggest failures. That’s why it’s so important to innovate in ways where there is newness, but it is not excessive. This doesn’t mean that innovation should be restricted to extreme incrementalism. But, it does mean that failure is likely when innovations are so wildly different that they fail to build on company strengths.

This is especially applicable to the role of brainstorming in innovation. Brainstorming typically entails sessions where participants think up new ideas without regard to how outlandish or ridiculous the ideas may seem. During brainstorming sessions, the ideas are not judged. Seemingly ridiculous brainstorming suggestions are valued because they may spark additional ideas, ultimately leading to something useful that no one would otherwise think of.

But, according to my 25+ years researching business success and failure patterns, successful innovation comes not from change everything wild ideas, but from building on past strengths in new ways. So, while brainstorming might aid in ideation, a more crucial contributor to innovation success is deciding which innovations are appropriate to pursue.  Too many companies pour too much money into chasing innovation that is not a good choice for them. Instead, companies need to understand what kinds of innovations succeed and to identify potential innovations that are most likely to do well.  So, it is essential not to get carried away with the brainstorming process to the point of merely trying to come up with wildly creative ideas that may gain a company’s support despite having poor success potential.

In light of the above, it is refreshing to see the May 18, 2023 Wall Street Journal article “Switch Off Brainstorming If You Want Brighter Ideas” by Callum Borchers. Near its beginning, the article discusses research by Sheena Iyengar of Colombia Business School. According to the article, she finds “that group brainstorming is usually a waste if time.” The article explains that “she interprets the evidence to mean that colleagues should compare notes after extensive, independent thinking.”

However, the article does also present the opposing view that brainstorming can have benefits. The article says, “Devoted brainstormers do exist outside the C-Suite. They don’t dispute research showing that freeform confabs are often fruitless. They maintain that breakthrough moments are possible and make the process worthwhile. Critics have unreasonable expectations, they say.”

Essentially, the article seems to say, brainstorming is not the optimal source of useful ideas and it can often be useless, however, it sometimes successfully identifies good ideas. The article’s position is consistent with my findings that brainstorming might sometimes generate valuable ideas, but it can easily produce wildly new ideas, which often entail too many major changes to be successful. Based on my research, it is more important to identify ideas that build on a company’s strengths and are, thus, more likely to succeed.  I do agree with the article’s position that these kinds of valuable ideas sometimes emerge from brainstorming. But, my concern is that brainstorming tends to be associated with wildly different ideas that are too extreme to succeed.

Companies need to focus on finding ideas that build on strengths, are a good fit for the business, and thus, are more likely to succeed.  Brainstorming can play a role for possible ideation. But, it is important not to get wrapped up in the wildly new and extremely different nature of the ideas brainstorming may produce. Innovation success comes from ideas that are a good fit. Those kinds of ideas don’t necessarily emerge from brainstorming, though sometimes they may. However, ideas with good potential are essential for successful innovation.

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