Brainstorming, thought leadership and political correctness.

August 5, 2007


The management technique brainstorming is under attack for politically incorrect terminology. Is this any more than a storm in a political teacup?

I found the news item tucked away in a gossip column in The Independent newspaper [Saturday 4th August, 2007]. Yes, even that very serious and campaigning journal has room for a gossip column.

The piece was written a jokey way. It seems that the term brainstorming in the context of a management technique is the hot topic of debate in university common rooms. This seems extremely unlikely but I am open to correction from anyone with first-hand experience.

There may, however, be some slight significance in the assertion that the term brainstorming has been challenged for having politically incorrect connotations.

I learned of a case in point recently, A colleague with considerable experience as a consultant has been requested to desist from using the term in work for a professional audience. He had been encouraging the use of unstructured and freewheeling discussions for some years as a way of encouraging groups to loosen-up their thinking. There is another discussion about whether this is much use, which I’ll come to shortly.

Being a sensitive sort of chap, my colleague took the line that he had transgressed a localized taboo, and that if he had caused offernce then he was sorry and would learn from his mistake.

He had taken the view that the particular audience was particularly sensitive to the term. He had been working with health care professionals, and they (or some of them) had felt the term to be unacceptable to people who had direct daily contact with the clinical consequences of brain trauma.

Political correctness running wild etc?

The gossip piece reminded me of that anecdote. Its tone had hinted at the comical way in which academics get into a tizzy over trivial things. This is a rather ironic way of approaching the implications of political correctness. But its message echoes a more popularist refrain. Political correctness gone mad … another example of the Nanny-State telling us what we have to say and do … it’s the thought police again … pathetic … .

Come to think of it, the last time this sort of thing hit the news was when McDonalds launched its not inconsiderate resources behind a campaign to police the use of the term McJob

But getting back to brainstorming … the sub-groups directly involved include those change agents such as my colleague who have been describing part of their professional repertoire as brainstorming. It’s a relatively miniscule community, compared with, say financial accountants, or estate agents or even McDonald team leaders. It’s also a community already distancing itself from being practitioners of brainstorming. Some are seeking refuge in the term Parnes-Osborn Creative Problem Solving. Others have their own customized ways of encouraging creativity.

The other problem with brainstorming

That’s partly because professionals like to make claims for their own particular way of doing things. Brainstorming is a bit too general. It may just be that the objections to the term are rippling out beyond the confines of Health Management.

My own take is that practitioners have been claiming too much for the technique. According to the Encyclopedia of Creativity there is very little evidence that the operational processes of brainstorming lead directly to more creative ideas. There is actually a lot more evidence that brainstorming leads indirectly to creative ideas, as well as being a rather efficient way of ‘searching widely’ prior to making an important decision. It is also the case that groups playing around with such approaches are open to other ideas, and likely to be creative in other ways. This is one conclusion that is being drawn from a celebrated management example of the Ideo company, which claims brainstorming as a way of corporate life.