Brainstorming doesn't work. To cultivate better ideas, try internal crowdfunding instead.

By Cultivate Labs on April 18, 2017

We've all participated in group brainstorming sessions in both academic and business settings at some point complete with whiteboards, Post-it notes, and afternoons around a conference table. Though it has been proven that brainstorming, especially in group settings, doesn't work, people continue to look to it as the go-to technique for stimulating creativity. When the afternoon session is over, someone takes a picture of the whiteboard and promises to follow up with the team. And that's as far as we get before our current duties reclaim our time and our idealistic To-Do list withers away.

The practice of brainstorming was developed in the 1940s by advertising executive, Alex Osborn, who was frustrated by his employees' inability to develop creative solutions individually so he began to host group-think sessions. The technique is built on four foundational principles:

  1. Aim for a large quantity of ideas.
  2. Withhold criticism.
  3. Encourage wild and creative ideas.
  4. Combine and improve ideas.

It seems to make sense. Partially because we have participated in so many brainstorming sessions that these are familiar rules, partially because some of these principles still hold true. The problem with brainstorming though lies in the environment in which it is conducted.

Why Brainstorming is Ineffective in the Initial Stage of Ideation:

Groups Don’t Generate Better Ideas

Group settings that encourage oral vs. written participation isolate people who are uncomfortable speaking up, so some of the best ideas may never be voiced. Additionally, sharing ideas orally is inefficient as only a single idea can be proposed at a time to be heard and considered by the group. Participants can easily piggy-back on others because they don’t have to put in the amount of effort required when working alone. When initial ideation happens in groups, the quality, novelty, and variety of ideas is drastically reduced because people spend more time revising ideas than generating new ones.

Debate is Discouraged

Nothing shuts down a discussion or someone’s willingness to contribute ideas faster than a nasty attack of criticism, but not all criticism is negative. The ultimate goal is to develop useful, actionable ideas, and healthy debate is required to get to that point so you’re not stuck with a list containing terrible or unfeasible ideas that eat up your time trying to make bad ideas better when you should be focusing on ideas that have potential. Being polite and being collaborative are not mutually exclusive.

Brainstorming Generates Ideas, Not Action

The biggest flaw with brainstorming is that it is simply an idea generation technique, and too often teams fail to make time for follow-up prioritization, implementation, and decision maker buy-in as everyone sinks back into their daily jobs. In the end, it’s a big ol’ waste of time if you don’t have a clear plan and the resources to implement ideas.

A New Solution: Internally Crowdsource (and Crowdfund) Ideas

Many researchers, including Osborn himself, have proven brainstorming ineffective because groups are no more likely to generate strong original ideas than individuals. So if brainstorming isn’t an effective technique for fostering innovation, what is? At Cultivate Labs, everything we do is based on the fact that we know the collective intelligence of the group is more accurate than the individual, so we built a better environment called Cultivate Ignite to solicit ideas and bring them to fruition using crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has exploded in the entrepreneurial world because it allows for real-time validation of ideas - if the market values it, they support it with investment. The same idea can be applied for intrapreneurs in organizations looking for better ways to innovate because crowdfunding works not only to generate ideas, it quickly validates those worth investing in, and there is a built-in structure to implement action when ideas are funded.

Here are the advantages of using crowdfunding over brainstorming:

Individuals are Better at Creating Ideas, Groups are Better at Refining Them

By having people develop and pitch their own ideas before receiving broader peer feedback and collaboration, crowdfunding supports generating ideas unfettered by the groupthink that hinders brainstorming. Cultivate Ignite encourages collaboration and debate through shared editing and messaging functionalities. Crowdfunding can also prohibit great ideas from making the cut, since only fully funded ideas become real projects, but the great ideas still surface. The added benefit to crowdfunding is that people are more vested in the prioritization of these ideas when they are given a pool of money to use at their discretion.

Crowdfunding Creates an Inclusive Environment

Since ideas are pitched in a digital rather than oral format, crowdfunding removes barriers for introverts or others who worry about pitching ideas, thus creating a more inclusive environment. In addition, using a digital crowdfunding application allows organizations to work around geographic and time constraints, since participation isn’t reliant on everyone joining around a conference table for an afternoon.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Most importantly, when using Ignite, leadership has already demonstrated their support of executing new ideas by allocating company budget for employees to invest in crowdfunding campaigns, and knowing the campaign will yield several funded ideas, they are encouraged to set concrete steps to support them with budget and staffing to ensure their success prior to campaign roll out.

By engaging your team in the idea generation, funding, and development of projects, organizations can better engage employees and develop ideas worthy of your people’s time and your company’s money. We continue to see clients like AstraZeneca and AbbVie return for multiple rounds of internal crowdfunding having successfully launched projects uncovered using Ignite, and each time, their teams get better at developing ideas, investing confidently, and collaborating across divisions. Brainstorming doesn’t work, crowdfunding does, so ditch the Post-its and start investing in your team with Cultivate Ignite.

Further reading: What Happens When You Provide a Refund Mechanism in a Crowdfunding App


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