Brainstorming under attack: 8 errors in the WSJ

Many people get the new rules of creativity in the corporation.  But there are still stubborn pockets of resistance.  In the Wall Street Journal today, an astonishing essay that reveals that 8 errors continue to flourish.

error 1:

Sandberg argues that a present article of faith is wrong, that in fact there IS such a thing as a bad idea.

Oh, how sad.  Anyone who has done any brainstorming knows that you have to make all ideas welcome to discover the good ones.  The happy news is that the bad ideas go away on their own.  So it costs us nothing to play host to them for a moment.

error 2:

Sandberg cites evidence to suggest that brain storming sessions sometimes induce a fatal self consciousness that stops ideas from happening.  When well managed, creativity sessions are almost instaneously captivating. 

error 3:

Sandberg cites evident to suggest that brain storming can’t be scheduled and this too is wrong.  In point of fact, brainstorming and explosive creativity can be made to happen almost anywhere…except of course at our better known, more politically orthodox universities. 

error 4:

A former dean of an engineering school argues that brainstorming sessions fail because someone always hijacks the proceedings.  Nonsense.  One might have to apply the device I first saw used by Denise Fonseca (of The Coca-Cola Company): hurling M&Ms at people who do not "play well with others."  But eventually everyone gets it and it’s all in.  (I have blogged about Fonseca here.  Please use Fonseca as your search term.  Sorry not to supply the link.  I am away from home and using someone else’s computer under time constraint.)

error 5:

Brainstorming takes the planning of a state dinner.  Nonsense.  Subscribe to a simple system or hire the Sterling Rice group in Colorado.

error 6:

That brainstorming must sometimes devolve into blamestorming.  Again, good ideas win the day.  No coercion is called for.  No blame is required.  A brainstorm is a little network, in Weinberger’s wonderful phrase, "small pieces loosely joined."  I turns out that new ideas are drawn to this net, they issue from its collective efforts, no individual wins much praise, no individual needs punishment or discouragement.  Well constructed, these networks attract ideas and make them flourish.

error 7:

People do better on their own than they do in brainstorming sessions.  This is really daft.  I like to think of myself as a pretty creative guy, but I am never more creative than when I am a small piece loosely joined with other small pieces in the generative circumstances of a brain storming group.

error 8:

Professor Perkins, of the Harvard School of Graduate Education, says that group creativity is undertaken inspite of its inefficiency "because you want everyone to feel they have a voice." 

I know the idea of faux inclusion and collaboration is now fashionable in some schools of education, but the corporation is generally better, and less patronizing, than this.

In sum

It is hard to imagine that an institution as smart at the WSJ should be capable of generating so many stupidities about brainstorming.  And this at a time when the corporation is having to flourish in an innovation economy where creativity is the new name of the game. 

But I guess this tells us that the corporate culture has yet to absorb the most important lessons here.  What did Gibson say…that the future is here, it’s just badly distributed.


Sandberg, Jared.  2006.  Brainstroming Works if People Scramble For Ideas on Their Own.  Wall Street Journal.  June 12, 2006, b1.

9 thoughts on “Brainstorming under attack: 8 errors in the WSJ

  1. Peter

    Well done, Grant!

    Methinks the problem here arises from the nature of traditional academia in the arts and humanities, in which research is undertaken by individuals, and only rarely by teams. Traditional journalism shares this feature, so members of both professions hold weirdly inaccurate views of the nature and source of creativity in business.

    Even the research teams which do exist in academia are usually voluntary, self-selected and with no penalties for premature exit or collapse. I know of no company which operates teams in this way.

  2. Scott Whittemore

    (I know this is not germane to the above topic, I am new to the whole blogosphere)

    Mr. McCracken,
    I recently had the pleasure of attending your lecture at the ULI Conference in Las Vegas this past week.

    First of all let me say thank you for coming to the event, your piece was by far the most entertaining, if not the most informative.

    Second, please allow me to ask a belated question. I was intrigued by the discussions on trends, and how because of nimble venture capital, there has been an explosion of change less controlled by traditional “gate keepers.” As we discussed a couple case studies like Snapple, I couldn’t help but think of the recent sky-rocket-like rise of I am 25, and three years ago I had never heard of myspace, or even new that I had such personal real estate waiting for me on the web – and what seemed like over-night, “everyone” had a myspace page. After reviewing a couple pages, I realized that displaying what amounted to some people’s whole lives on-line, was simply beyond my current accepted levels of exhibitionism. Setting aside the great anthropological topic that could be done on such a site, I actually do have a question. recently sold for $580 million to News Corp. With 16 million monthly users, it might seem to many like a sound market decision…however, wouldn’t it be more sound to assume that because the popularity of the site was/is driven by a teen demographic – a very fickle, self-gratifying demographic – might be very soon, very “uncool?”

    If so, I can’t help but be cynical that actually predicting such phenomena becomes almost impossible, and investing in such “fads” becomes a gamble, and not calculated risk.

  3. Grant

    Peter, yes, coming out of the academic world, it took awhile before I began to “play well with others.” Thanks, Grant

    Scott, thanks for dropping by, and your kind words on the LV talk, this will be the challenge for NewsCorp: how to manage something that resists managing, something where the consumers are the producers, something where cool comes from within not without. Not an impossible challenge, but a relatively novel and difficult one. Thanks, Grant

  4. Mike

    The Fonseca item is “Idea generation: the M&Ms way.”

    The key rule:

    “There is one rule in this room: No nos. You may not contradict, dispute, or disagree with the things you hear here. I am going to enforce this rule with my M&Ms. When I hear you contradict, dispute or disagree, I am going to pelt you with one or several M&Ms depending on the severity your offense.””

  5. Ellen

    our man Sandberg comes so close to tossing the brainstorming baby out with the bathwater! how silly. is there anyone who doesn’t recognize that a methodology alone is never a guarantee of success? let’s hear it for luck & judgment & people skills, too

  6. Thom Quinn

    Great Post and I agree with you; however, I understand where some of this resistance from certain parts of the corporate world. I have been part of some very poor brainstorm sessions with no real ideas due to two factors. First, the culture of that company, department, or team is opposed to the process. Second, this creativity technique is rarely used and the participants are not well practiced of that kind of thinking, especially in a public forum. If the culture and\or the daily habits of the members are against brainstorming, it is not very effective activity.

    Yet, there are ways to around this problem.

    I have found that using a methodology called wildstorming helps with the process and build a stronger team. Wildstorming is the radical cousin of traditional brainstorming, as it turns the process upside-down and inside-out, where strange and bizarre concepts are the rule.

    During a wildstorm session, team members suggest absolutely crazy solutions to the core issue which is being examined. Wildstorms are a great place to ponder ideas that are true overkill or prohibitively expensive. Wildstorm answers can deny physics and logic; they can be weird, fanciful, or even illegal.

    The remedies discovered during a wildstorming session themselves would probably never be implemented; nevertheless, wildstorms do lead to creative insights on the causes and effects of the core problem. The end result is novel breakthrough solutions.

    The best practices for conducting a wildstorm are outlined at

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  8. Brian

    Right on the money . I got the sense that all Sanberg did was add credibility to the notion that big media is becoming less useful and antiquated. I would also suggest looking into how Claudia Kotchka assisted Procter and Gamble in re-tooling their corporate culture for the conceptual age.

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