Alex Osborn was born in 1888 and had a career in advertising. He promoted war bonds during World War I where he met two other professionals who would become partners in an advertising business. While the business survived the Great Depression, it began to struggle in 1939 when it lost key accounts.

Alex developed a concept called thinking up to stimulate ideas for sustaining the business. Twelve years later, the business was the second largest firm in America. Alex developed an interest in creative thinking. He used the theories of Graham Wallace to explore the four stages of idea development: incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification.

Alex took these four stages and developed the concept of brainstorming. Brainstorming as viewed by Alex involved the following rules:

  • Generate as many ideas as possible.
  • Criticism of ideas is not permitted.
  • Wild ideas are welcome.
  • A combination of the expansion of ideas is permitted.

Brainstorming quickly caught on and became a practice in organizations throughout America.

While brainstorming became a popular tool, there were serious studies that showed collective generation of ideas was no better than generation of ideas by individuals. The studies were faulted because they didn’t follow the brainstorming rules as Osborn proposed them.

Over time, the original brainstorming approach has been modified to counter some of the concerns with the original approach.

  • Silent and anonymous generation of ideas – While Alex Osborn had a rule of no criticism, the power dynamics of organizations made this a challenge. Self-censorship of ideas was prevalent.
  • Prioritization of ideas at the end – A mass compilation of ideas has limited value unless there was some sense of which ones deserved follow-up attention.
  • Creativity priming – Participants are exposed to creative thinking exercises prior to the beginning of the brainstorming to help make the ideas more than just modifications of what exists now.

Does bringing people together really enhance idea generation? Neuroscience is providing some insight. There is no clear answer, but what we have learned so far is that group dynamics are greatly impacted by how our brains work, and there is no guarantee that a group will be better than a single person. One thing that brainstorming has achieved is that bringing people together does create a sense of engagement.

Some beginnings morph over time. Brainstorming, which was designed to generate new ideas, has morphed from a creative thinking process to an employee engagement process.

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            “Change only favors minds that are diligently looking and preparing for discovery.” – Louis Pasteur

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Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.