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The Real Don Draper Invented Brainstorming. But He Did It Wrong.

Your team in a room with a whiteboard? As it turns out, that tried-and-true brainstorming method produces the lowest-quality ideas and wastes the most time. Here's a better way.

In 1942, BBDO ad executive Alex Osborn (the real Don Draper), coined the term "brainstorming" and published these four rules of engagement:

1. Focus on quantity. The more ideas you produce, the greater your chances of hitting on something radical are.
2. Withhold criticism. There are no bad ideas in a brainstorm.
3. Welcome unusual ideas. Suspend your assumptions on the road to solutions.
4. Combine and improve ideas. In other words, 1 + 1 = 3.

So adamant and convincing was Osborn (he was an ad man, after all) that these brainstorming laws remain largely unchanged 70 years later. There's just one problem: Osborn was wrong.

As Keith Sawyer, associate professor at Washington University, explains in the New Yorker, "Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas." In other words, brainstorming is an inferior strategy for idea generation.

Paul B. Paulus, psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, adds more damning evidence. For 15 years, he has studied the quality and quantity of ideas produced in group brainstorming sessions versus those that emerge from solitary or paired thinking. The unequivocal results? The most revolutionary solutions spring from group discussion of ideas hatched in isolation.

When it comes to typical brainstorming sessions, Paulus tells the school's magazine, "There's plenty of rain in the storm. That is, plenty of ideas falling from the sky. But there's not much lightning--the exceptional ideas that have the potential to set things on fire."

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Last updated: Dec 11, 2013


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