Creativity Explorer

3 criteria for a problem that justify brainstorming as THE method to enhance group creativity

Theory on the effectiveness on brainstorming show inconsistent conclusions. These inconsistency are mostly due to difference in research participants, in measuring methods, in theoretical frameworks, and due to the use of different ‘brainstorm problems’. In this short article I will focus on the latter, the brainstorm problems, based on the opinion of the inventor of brainstorming.

Alex Faikney Osborn (1888-1966)

If you are trained at the Buffalo University in New York or at the COCD in Belgium, you definitely know this guy: Alex Faikney Osborn. He was not a scientist, he was a business man. And he is the guy that coined the term ‘Brainstorm’. His influence on creative problem solving is still huge. Here we see him on the backcover of ‘Applied Imagination’ (1953): his most famous book.

Brainstorming is still widely accepted as THE method to stimulate group creativity.

Alex (we are on first name base) says the following about brainstorming (Osborn, 1948, p. 265):

‘Can a squad produce ideas? The answer is yes. Properly organized and run, a group can be a gold-mine of ideas.
It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our effort “Brainstorm Sessions”; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” means using the brain to storm a creative problem – and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.’

What subject lend themselves for brainstorming?

Here is what he says about the ‘subjects that lend themselves best to this kind of brainstorming’ (Osborn, 1948, p. 268-269):

‘The first rule is that the problem should be specific rather than general – it should be narrowed down so that the brainstorms can shoot their ideas at a single target’.

‘It is well if a subject is familiar as well as simple and talkable.’

‘When a problem calls for the use of a pencil and paper, the session may likewise fall flat.’


If you want to solve a problem by using the creativity of the group, this problem has to be specific.
The more specific your question, the more specific your answers. Specific ideas lead to conclusions and actions. General problems lead to general ideas. General ideas lead to misinterpretation and confusion. Do not brainstorm without a specific problem!

Examples of specific problems:

  • How to make this product cheaper?
  • How to improve the production of this product?
  • How to deliver our service faster?


Problems that are about culture, vision, team work, or any problem that is centered around relationships between people or about other people than yourself are NEVER simple.
If I look at the examples Osborn uses for brainstorm subjects in his most famous book4: they are all on the level like:

  • Think up a name for this product.
  • How to shorten your cooking time?
  • How to be more active in a lunch break?

This criteria causes a problem: there are few simple problems in our complex world today. So, can we not brainstorm on those problems? Well we can. But if we don’t want to waist our time, we should not.

Talkable: so no pencil & paper

He says ‘no pencil and paper’ should be needed. This surprised me at first. I always stress the importance of putting ideas on paper, make sure to capture everyone’s thinking. And talking about pencil & paper: only consider the visual revolution that is taking place!
Alex uses the example of coming up with a Jingle that did not work in a brainstorm setting because participants were ‘too anxious to think in silence and write’ (Osborn, 1948, p. 269).

I think that his opinion brainstorm participants need the energy of the group to get the creative flows going. I can only conclude the following:
If you want to be creative on simple issues you need energy of the group. If you want to be creative on complex issues, you need to THINK. And if you need to think you need to have some peace and quite.
So either coming up with a Jingle is a complex problem (I think it is, but that is also because I have no music skills) or he forgot his own brainstorm rules and did not set the right conditions for the brainstorm.

What do we do if we cannot use brainstorming for generic and complex problems?


Make it simple & specific, duh

For example we can listen to Tom Wujec: ‘break down complex things into simple things and put them back together’.
Please find his ‘draw toast’ method here. It is the most amazing method in the world. No seriously it’s great. (It really is).

Fix the method

The silent brainstorm was mentioned by quite some respondents as their favorite method. Silent brainstorms are often called ‘brain writing’ or ‘brain drawing’. There is one huge advantage here: it is in silence, leaving people room to THINK. Which is a must when it comes to complexity.

Do something completely different

All survey respondents have a high level of education. Therefore I assume you have the ability think thoroughly about the methods you use in each session. What I conclude from Osborn’s criteria is that we should consider NOT using brainstorming more often.

Keep in mind, sharing thoughts on complex issues, in which all opinions are valuable (read: participants are not alowed to judge) is NOT the same as brainstorming. Sharing thoughts is not the same as stimulating creativity to come up with a solution. The fact that participants have to obey a brainstorm rule, does not make that action a brainstorm.
Think about it…

Good luck with your next creative session!


The theory on which scientist base the principles behind brainstorming is the ‘associative theory’: an explanation of creative thinking as the process by which disparate elements come together in new combinations of useful purpose. (Russ & Dillon, 2011).

Theory suggested in the Encyclopedia of Creativity on this topic:

  • Fasco, D. (1999). Associative theory. In: Runco, M. and Pritzker S. R.(eds.) Encyclopedia of Creativity, pp. 135-139. San Diago: Academic Press.
  • Forback, G.B. and Evans, R.G. (1981). The remote associations test as predictor of productivity in brainstorming groups. Applied Psychological Measurements 5: 333-339.
  • Laughlin, P.R. (1967). Incidental concept formation as a function of creativity and intelligence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5: 115-119.
  • Mednick, M.T., Mednick, S.A. and Jung, C.C. (1964). Continual association as a function of level of creativity and type of verbal stimulus. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 69: 511-515.
  • Mednick, S.A. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychology Review 69: 220-232.
  • Murray, J. and Russ, S. (1981). Adaptive regression and types of cognitive flexibility. Journal of personality Assessment 45: 59-65.
  • Parnes, S.J. and Meadow, A. (1959). The effects of ‘brainstorming’ instructions on creative problem solving by trained and untrained subjects. Journal of Educational Psychology 50: 171-176.
  • Russ, S. W. and Dillon, J. A. (2011). Associative theory. In: Runco, M. A. and Pritzker S. R. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Creativity, pp. 66-71, vol.1. San Diago: Academic Press.

Critique on the associative theory and brainstorming, for example:

  • Weisberg, R. W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  • Mullen, B., Johnson, C. and Salas, E. (1991). Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12: 3-23.
  • Stroebe, W, and Diehl, M. (1994). Why Groups are less Effective than their Members: On Productivity Losses in Idea-generating Groups. European Review of Social Psychology 5: 271-303.


  • Osborn, A. F. (1948). Your Creative Power. New York: The Scribner Press, 9th print, 1952.
  • Osborn, A. F. (1953). Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. New York: The Scribner Press, 6th print 1955.
October 17, 2017Article by: doser



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