3 Ways to Get Ideas that AREN'T Brainstorming

January 4, 2019

As someone who has recently been subjected to several “brainstorming” sessions (OK, I initiated at least one of them), my interest was piqued by a recent New Yorker article title-tagged “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work.” Oh really!

According to Jonah Lehrer, the whole brainstorming craze started in 1948, when Alex Osborn published a book called Your Creative Power. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote," the book became a surprise best-seller. It was full of little tips and tricks to help people boost their creative output, and one of those tips was “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas”:

When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective” … The book outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The most important of these, Osborn said—the thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity—was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail.

People ate it up, and Osborn became an “influential business guru” (he must be on Twitter!). The only problem? Brainstorming doesn’t actually work. It may feel like it’s working, but study after study has shown that people generate more ideas either on their own or under conditions where people are encouraged to debate and give negative feedback. Surprising, no?

The Power of the Old Wives’ Tale

Brainstorming, it would seem, is something of an old wives’ tale in the business world. When you hear that something works while you’re young and impressionable, no amount of scientific debunking can fully convince you that it’s not true. It’s like the “rule” people still trot out about drinking 8 glasses of water a day. Just stop and think about it for a minute: Why would 8 be the magic number? Wouldn’t that depend greatly on your body size, how much water you have in your diet (what if you eat soup for every meal?), how much physical activity you do, what climate you live in, and a hundred other variables? Someone, somewhere made up the 8-glasses-a-day rule, and for some reason it stuck. But most experts agree you only lose about a liter of water per day, and most people recover that naturally by drinking spontaneously or absorbing liquids through food.

Same goes for brainstorming. Most of us have probably been hearing this word since we were kids. If I tell you now that all the evidence suggests brainstorming is actually a relatively crappy way to generate ideas, will you take it to heart?

If you do, you might need some new ideas for getting ideas – some meta ideas, if you will. So here are three approaches to generating marketing ideas – for marketing or whatever else you might need them for – aside from brainstorming. You won't even need to book a meeting in Outlook. (Disclaimer: These approaches are not scientifically proven. YMMV!)

1. Do a Free Write

Think of it as a private brainstorming session. Instead of getting together in a group, sit yourself in a room with the door closed and give yourself 20 minutes to write down all the ideas you can think of. One benefit of this tactic is that you remove your internal filter that tells you not to say something stupid in front of your boss or that cute guy in sales. Just write down anything you can think of. Then you can refine those ideas into an edited list to take to your boss or otherwise act on. This also allows you to make a case for an idea you really believe in, without risk of it getting shot down immediately or talked over.

2. Steal

Look, I’m not advocating that you go Jean Valjean or even that you commit intellectual property theft. But if somebody does something that inspires you, I see no reason not to run with that inspiration, provided you put some distance between your version of the idea and the original. (For all you know, the thing you’re inspired by was stolen too!)

For example, I recently took part in a brainstorming session to come up with some display ad concepts. Yesterday, I saw this ad, which I like more than anything we came up with:


Generate Ideas

I would never just outright steal the whole concept, but I can use it as a jumping-off point for similar ideas – for example, I can take the “Links are SEO fuel” metaphor as a template. Maybe my version says “PPC is marketing kindling” – since PPC can work for you even if you have a very new business or website, to start generating traffic and buzz. The ad could have an image of a fire getting started. This is far enough removed from the original that probably no one would ever know where I got my idea.

3. Go for a Walk

There’s something about fresh air and movement that, for me, always gets my brain flowing. I find that it’s very hard to concentrate on one thing when you’re sitting in front of a computer – where notifications for new emails and tweets are always popping up. And a walk is more stimulating that sitting in a room staring at the wall. Leave your phone behind for this – and no earbuds either!

What do you do to bring on the marketing muse? Are you ready to give up brainstorming or are you skeptical that it doesn’t work?  

More Web Marketing Highlights

Anyone who works in SEO has a sense of how much Wikipedia dominates the SERPs. Intelligent Positioning did a little research to quantify just how much butt they’re kicking. Their study reveals that Wikipedia appears on page 1 of the Google results for 99% of searches!

Wanna dominate like Wikipedia? On Search Engine Journal, Neil Patel shares 10 advanced SEO techniques for getting more blog traffic, including making use of author markup and bigger, more beautiful pictures.

Rand Fishkin warns against trusting the AdWords Keyword Tool, which hides many keyword variations unless you know to search for them specifically.

And finally, in case you didn’t get enough baby animals last week, here’s some great footage of baby orangutans, which this clever (and cute, I might add) fellow got with a creative use of his iPhone:


Have a good weekend!

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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