How did the terms “brainstorming” and later on “design thinking”, become synonymous to “ideation” or “innovation”?

This is a strange phenomenon, made doubly puzzling by the fact that both BS and DT are respectively pretty useless and not-so-helpful when it comes to driving people, teams and companies to break their usual ways of thinking and create true novelty.

Brainstorming, famously invented independently but near simultaneously by Alex Osborn and Walt Disney in the early ‘50s, played an important role in its early days in promoting creativity and innovation, especially in the corporate world. Formerly downtrodden executives suddenly received a “license not-to-kill” and more importantly not-to-be-killed that allowed them to speak out their ideas in relative safety. In the closed hierarchical culture of those times, this was invaluable and contributed to a true cultural revolution.

Some 70 years later, BS remains a tool that may help motivate participants to be active in a discussion (if they are not absolutely fed up with the process, as often happens), drive them to share ideas they already have (if they haven’t had plenty of opportunities to share them, as is the case in many organizations these days) and promote team-building. So, what is there not to like?

Brainstorming is harmful only inasmuch as its proponents claim that it is a dependable method for generating new ideas. It isn’t, and this is confirmed time and again by the experience of its corporate users. A quick search for “research showing that brainstorming doesn’t work” provides plenty of material to substantiate this fact.

Why, then, does BS continue to be used nearly synonymously with “ideation” and “innovation”? Why does it amazingly still compete with Design Thinking in terms of searches in Google Trends to this day?

There are several possible explanations. Here we will mention only two, that are of special interest, since they also partially explain the allure of brainstorming’s heir; Design Thinking.

1) BS and DT both evolved with the support of strong, cool proponents with a strong knack for PR (the ad industry and “the IDEOs” respectively).
2) Both BS and DT are outstanding at giving their users the illusion that innovating is easy and fun.

Design Thinking is, obviously, more complex than BS, and is useful in many ways. In fact, anyone engaged in innovation would do well to learn and utilize the method. Its false claim is more subtle than that of BS, and is actually related to BS. To understand it, let us look at the structure of the method. There are various ways of describing DT, but a reasonable depiction divides the method in three main steps:
1) Empathize and Define Needs
2) Ideate, challenging assumptions
3) Prototype and Test

DT does an admirable job in steps 1 and 3: it markedly enhances the abilities of individuals and teams to gather insights and get into the user’s shoes. This is invaluable for any business or anyone who aims to supply a service or product. DT has also greatly enriched innovation processes, and thinking in general, by emphasizing the importance of visualizing and concretizing ideas through prototyping, and to the courageous practice of going out and testing ideas.

It is only in step 2, that DT falls, literally, into the BS trap. For what does DT offer as the crucial step between beautifully garnered insights and compelling prototypes? What does Design Thinking propose as a method for “ideating” and challenging assumptions? Brainstorming.

Design Thinking is, therefore, a useful framework for tackling innovation. It just lacks a key component, the heart of the process, i.e. a trustworthy method to break out of one’s fixed ways of thinking, and thus create novelty.

There would have been no harm done, if the originators and evangelists of DT would have presented it for what it is: a useful collection of tools for harvesting insights, for visualizing and for prototyping, placed within a sensible 3 (or 5) step process.

For some reason the world was also asked to buy the notion that in order to innovate:
a) Everyone needs to think like a designer, and
b) All you need to do is empathize and then prototype
To this they added, what in terms of PR was a stroke of genius:
c) The best way to innovate is to have fun.

But, in fact:
a) Why should the role of designers, cool and visual as they are, be a model for a CEO rethinking her company’s strategy, for a scientist manipulating a molecule or for a teacher coming up with novel ways to teach a history class? There are, indeed, some aspects of innovation, especially as it relates to product development, that are similar to the work of a designer, but that is a far cry from claiming that all innovation should be conducted as if it were a designers’ task.

b) Empathic insight collection is crucial, as is prototyping, but the key element, the missing middle, is breaking one’s fixedness. This can be done with structured tools - we recommend ours, obviously (SIT), but any effective non-Brainstorming method can do the job. Without it, you will most probably find yourself rehashing your existing ideas with cosmetic changes.

c) Having fun in life is obviously better than not having fun. But is it conducive to innovation? To a certain, very limited sense, this is true. Having fun is energizing, and a group that is enjoying itself may persist longer on a given task. But achieving true innovation is nearly contrary to “having fun”. True innovation requires changing the way one thinks, and that is a painful endeavor, and the motivation to do so more often than not arises from discontent and discomfort.

Why, then, have Brainstorming and Design Thinking cornered the innovation market, becoming synonyms for ideation and innovation? They are easy to adopt, give an illusory sensation of easy wins and have useful benefits that can easily be mistaken for innovation. And, of course, great PR has created a herd phenomenon, with the perverse result of weakening innovation instead of enhancing it.

What is needed is a rich framework, combining useful elements of empathic design, visualization, prototyping and experimentation of the Lean Startup ilk with a robust methodology for breaking out of existing thought patterns. In the past few years we have accumulated experience in creating such “braided” formats, based on SIT’s structured (and strongly non-brainstormy) approach to ideation, bringing predictability and method to the seemingly mysterious core of the entire innovation process.

This is a guest post by Amnon Levav, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of SIT – Systematic Inventive Thinking Ltd. Click here for SIT's website.


Want to learn more? Join Yoni Stern and Drew Boyd for a Trending Topic Talk on 24 March, 16:00 CET/11am ET/8am PT, where they will share their decades of experience with methodologies like Design Thinking, Brainstorming, Agile, Systematic Inventive Thinking, and others and discuss which popular approaches do more damage than good when it comes to innovation.

How can we take the good from each approach and leave behind the degenerative factors, so that employees will be less cynical (and resistant) to innovation, helping it regain to power to, once again, be the growth engine that we need it to be? Join the conversation - it's free to join. RSVP via https://community.innov8rs.co/c/upcoming/yoni-stern-drew-boyd