Brainstorming in the Age of Zoom


“Brainstorm” has entered the generic lexicon similar to how the brand name “Kleenex” now covers all types of disposable hankies. Brainstorm has morphed from a defined process to a catch-all term explaining a sudden burst of unexpected thinking or ideas. The birth of the term, for the most part, has been forgotten in its adoption.

Yes, “brainstorm” had a parent, whose name was Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue in the 40s and 50s. Osborn wrote a book that outlined the creative process he developed to unearth creative secrets. His book, Your Creative Power, (1948) contained advice such as, “To get your foot in the door, your imagination can be an open-sesame,” and “The more you rub your creative lamp, the more alive you feel.”

A 2012 article in The New Yorker claims that Osborn’s legacy at B.B.D.O. was cemented in Chapter 33, “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” “Brainstorm,” he wrote, involves “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” In the book, according to the New Yorker piece, Osborn described how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.

In 1953, Osborn added to his list of publications with the book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. He described the brainstorming process with more precision than he had in the earlier book.

Why talk about brainstorming today? Because all of us face the challenge of coming up with solutions to challenges we could never have foreseen. Many, if not most, of us are isolated from our co-workers and our partners, yet we need to generate new ideas. Idea generation is not the work of one person; it needs to arise out of a collaboration, the sort of collaboration that used to happen in conference rooms but can easily adapt to Zoom screens.

Since 1953, many marketers have dismissed brainstorming, insisting on individual creative thinking. Adventuresome latecomers develop proprietary ideation processes, but this group is either reacting to the brainstorming concept or owe their existence to Osborn’s work.

Why is brainstorming ideal for generating creative, collaborative solutions in the age of Zoom? Here are some reasons:

  • As random as brainstorming appears, it is not. The purpose is to produce winning ideas by generating a lot of ideas.
  • A good brainstorm session has a focus. What problem are we trying to solve? What new idea are we trying to generate? A focus is also an excellent way to control time. A one-hour brainstorm session on Zoom or other virtual platform is perfect for keeping participants alert and interacting.
  • Brainstorming creates a safe space for participants, both physically and psychologically. By scheduling the virtual brainstorm, participants have time to think about the focus—not necessarily to generate ideas but to be primed to participate.
  • Brainstorm participants can talk openly. There is no structure, no agenda. The purpose is to generate lots of ideas, remember?
  • Don’t forget: brainstorming promotes quantity over quality.
  • Participants can share their ideas without judgment. This is one of the critical features of brainstorming. No one is allowed to say, “That’s a lousy idea,” or worse, “We tried that two years ago, and it doesn’t work.”

Successful brainstorms need facilitators who monitor behaviors and keep the group focused on the goal. In the age of Zoom and other platforms, control of overlapping participation is as simple as a mute button protocol, which is activated when a participant wants to contribute. Weird, off-the-wall ideas are encouraged. Some of the best brainstorms are those that include not only the teams working on the issue but also people completely uninvolved in the project. This latter group is valuable for its outsider perspective, and in some cases, for its consumer insights.

The facilitator’s responsibilities include recording all ideas. A fascinating component of brainstorming is gradually noticing the synergies beginning to develop between possibly disparate ideas—and combining them into something unique.

Collaboration does not have to stop because we can’t all be physically in a room. Our approach to our business has never been more in need of distinctive solutions and creative ideation. The competitive landscape hasn’t disappeared, and we can’t put our efforts on hold until we’re all back together. Old-school, Osborn-style brainstorming might just be the answer for your team.

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