Creative consultant Deej Johnson on why bad brainstorming doesn’t work – and what to do instead

Deej Johnson
For many creatives, brainstorming looks great – but ultimately wastes time! In this book extract, author Deej Johnson explains why…

Before we get going, let me make a distinction between two uses of the word brainstorming. Many professionally creative people use the word to mean a session in which they bounce ideas around with trusted partners. The more common use of the word, however, is a situation in which people that don’t usually create are brought together to do so in a group. Led by a facilitator – often someone no more qualified than being considered encouraging – they then write ideas on a white board or some such…

Ask yourself this: If you have a lot of people that aren’t particularly good with musical instruments, how much better do you think they’ll sound if you put them all in one room and say, “Just do your best!”? Sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, right? Well, brainstorming can often be the same… If you’re putting together people who don’t seem to produce ideas very well as individuals, what are the chances they’ll suddenly do better in a group?!

The sheer busyness of brainstorming, however, often creates the illusion of productivity when really it’s all gong and no dinner. Indeed, studies show brainstorming in groups produces fewer and poorer ideas than individual ideation. On top of that, many people simply loathe such sessions. Nevertheless, plenty of creative leads still propose using the technique for two reasons – one logical; one emotional…

Deej Johnson
First, logic suggests
that brainstorming MUST work because no one of us can produce as many ideas as all of us can. That seems to make sense… It feels reasonable to imagine that the more of you there are, the more ideas there’ll be. Second, getting a team together and having everyone chip in feels productive. People often get excited, and – because the whiteboard ends up covered in writing – it creates the illusion that the group is creating a slumgullion of ideas in a huge melting pot.

If you’ve ever come back to a whiteboard after such a session, though, you may well know the feeling of creeping bathos that follows… When looking at the ideas in hindsight, most people are stunned by how few of them have any real use at all. There may be a lot of writing – but there’s not a lot of useful thinking.

So where does it all go wrong? One problem is that brainstorming presupposes that the ideas you come up with together are somehow more valuable than the ideas you come up with alone. It also presupposes that we all excel at being creative when we’re in a room full of people. This last point is particularly absurd because, when you specifically task individuals to produce a lot of ideas, many of them step up without any great fuss or fanfare…

As I say, the fact is that studies show people tend to produce more and better ideas when they’re on their own. This may be because brainstorming in groups plays to the strengths of extrovert people – but isn’t at all effective for getting a diverse range of ideas from a diverse range of people. While Susan Cain has written a whole book on the importance of introversion, and its relationship with creativity, she sums it up succinctly in a 2012 TEDTalk, saying it’s:

“…much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas – free from the distortions of group dynamics – then come together as a team to talk things through in a well-managed environment…”

Deej Johnson
The popular argument against this
follows the thinking, “Ah! But my team’s equal: we’ve got trust…” Well. Maybe… But imagine that you know, trust and understand everyone that’s coming to a brainstorm; introverts and extroverts alike. Imagine, too, that you trust them all to bring out the best in each other, and – unlikely though this is – that they all feel exactly the same way… If you really have a room full of people like that, you can bet the farm that these people are now so on your wavelength that they’re actually less likely to suggest ideas that radically differ from yours.

On the other hand, when you invite individuals who truly think differently – who aren’t on your wavelength – it often creates feelings of inhibition. This decreases the volunteering of thoughts and ideas. On top of all that, you also have to consider the cost implications of getting large numbers of people together. Even meeting online, as we’re now somewhat accustomed to doing, it still takes longer to have everyone contribute this way. Indeed, to tackle this, some companies now cap the amount that each person contributes – which is entirely at odds with the point of the session!

The next barrier to useful brainstorming doesn’t initially seem to have a lot to do with the true, tragic and troubling tale which saw, early in December 2010, a 77 year-old man, Brian Courtney, collapse on a snow-strewn street in Salisbury… The busy thoroughfare down which he’d walked was heaving with Christmas shoppers, not one of whom stopped to see if he was okay. Indeed, reports suggest that hundreds of pedestrians and motorists physically passed him by. Finally, after he’d been there four and a half hours, someone called an ambulance. Brian was lucky to survive.

Deej Johnson
How’s this relevant?
It’s relevant because the psychological factors behind this case are quite common. It’s known as Diffusion of Responsibility, or The Bystander Effect. It’s an extreme example of the way in which individuals abdicate responsibility when in groups – even in life and death situations. You can probably imagine how much greater people’s reluctance is to act in the comparatively trivial area of ideation. In short: when the onus is not exclusively on you to do SOMETHING, you are, quite naturally, not as inclined to do ANYTHING. In other words, you’re more likely to contribute less when you’re with others.

Better Brainstorming
Most of the time when I hear the word ‘Brainstorming’, a small part of me wants to die. But a much bigger part of me wants to kill! This is particularly true when people that ENJOY brainstorming deny that its limitations affect them… Even when science strongly suggests they do. Surprisingly, though, I’m not totally against brainstorming! I just suggest that – if you want to go ahead with a session – there are some simple steps you can take to stop it ending in predictable outcomes, pie-in-the-sky ideas – or bloodshed. Here are some of my Top Tips to Better Brainstorming…

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind…
This is the title of a fascinating book by Professor Guy Claxton. It explains how your brain works at two speeds… And how the ideas that pop into our heads when we’re first asked to think about something are very different from the ideas we have later. If you are going to brainstorm in groups, make sure contributors get enough time to mull things over beforehand. By all means, have them jot down their first thoughts – but give them time to let ideas bubble away, too.

Deej Johnson
Prevent Social Loafing

The abdication of responsibility mentioned earlier also goes by the brilliant name of Social Loafing. You can help combat this by asking individuals to come up with at least ten to fifteen ideas before going into a session. This helps ensure that, actually, there is an idea bedrock regardless of any ineffectiveness of the actual session.

Facilitators Should Facilitate – Not Editorialise
There’s an old joke in which a brainstorm facilitator asks an employee why she’s reluctant to contribute. The employee says, “I think this meeting’s going to waste everyone’s time.” The facilitator says: “Hey! Come on! First rule of brainstorming: you have to be positive!” So the employee says: “Alright… I’m positive this meeting’s going to waste everyone’s time!”

The reality of formal brainstorming is that many facilitators fall into the trap of thinking they’re there to judge ideas. Knowingly or otherwise, they belittle them, gloss over things they don’t get and give a disproportionate amount of time to the thinking they favour. But since the point of brainstorming is to encourage ideas, it’s vital to avoid criticism. People simply won’t offer ideas if they don’t feel confident…

That’s why facilitators need to be open minded, curious and enthusiastic, and well versed in the art and science of creativity. This way, they can help the group members expand, drill into and explore their thinking. Facilitators must see their role as getting MORE ideas on the board – not filtering out stuff they don’t get.

Deej Johnson
Factor Nudge

Once ideas start appearing on the board, the facilitator should feel empowered to start provoking more. How? By helping the room reframe the new thoughts as even newer ideas! Asking “What If…” questions, and changing perceived limitations by Factor Nudging can help no end. So the facilitator might say an idea is great as they jot it down, then say – for example, “And what if we did the opposite? What would that look like?” Or perhaps they’d ask, “And what if we had twice the budget?” or “What if we did that smaller? How would that go?”

Other Stuff
Some facilitators – as well as asking for a bunch of individual ideas ahead of the meeting – prepare other stimuli. These might include visual props, for example, or a list of words that they can use as part of the popular Random Word technique. Some companies I’ve worked with start sessions off by using Rory’s Story Cubes as a creativity tool. You can read about that here.

Filter Later
At some point after the session, ideas do – of course – need to be put through filters that consider practical things such as cost, timeframe, relevance to the brief, etc. Too many people allow these concerns to dominate sessions while still producing ideas, however. They spend time jumping back and forth between creative and logical thinking. Avoid this at all costs: it’s like being asked to drive a car smoothly while alternately stomping on the accelerator and brake.

Deej Johnson
This article is based on extracts from the book The Snakes & Ladders of Creative Thinking: How to Have More Ideas for Board Games, Improve Them & Get Them Ready to Pitch, by Deej Johnson & Billy Langsworthy.

Buy the book in the US, go to In the UK, visit Here’s what people say about it…

“Hands down the most insightful and useful book I may have ever claimed on business expenses. It has enabled me and my design team to produce better quality games and it’s even landed me a meeting with a leading High Street retailer. After reading this book I came to the conclusion I would have happily paid x20 the price to get this kind of knowledge and expert advice.”
C. Wood, Inventor

“The writing style is warm, witty and wise. If you’re designing games or toys please read this book; absorb the wisdom, do the exercises and your ideas will be better, faster, stronger and pretty soon those concepts will multiply… Can’t recommend it enough.”
W.P. Lindsay, Inventor

“An excellent book. The two authors, Deej and Billy, have clearly invented a board game or two and that’s in the main what the book revolves around. But even if you’re not in the board game market… there are skills to learn here for anyone who needs to come up with ideas regularly.”
T. Adams, TV Producer

“This is one of the best books out there about board game design and the thought process on how to come up with new ideas. It presents the information in a fun and humorous method, while being insightful and packed with knowledge. I’ve used many methods in this book to generate ideas, and can vouch for the effectiveness.”
K. Gruhl, Inventor

Deej Johnson

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