I just read Is Brainstorming a Waste of Time? on Lateral Action. Consider this quote:
I’ve heard similar complaints from quite a few creative directors and professional creatives – instead of seeing brainstorming as essential to the company’s creative process, they see it as a chore, something to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that they can get on with the real business of creativity. Particularly in companies where everyone is expected to contribute to the brainstorm – not just the ‘creative team’ – some creative directors have said they see it as a matter of political expediency rather than a source of inspiration: by involving other departments, everyone gets to ‘have their say’, but the really valuable ideas don’t emerge until afterwards, when the creatives start work in earnest.
I don’t know who first said that whenever a committee chooses a color, it’s beige. I do know that strategy is often annoyingly obvious. The simplest output of a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) is often the best.
Still, strategy isn’t done best by committee, consensus, or vote.
There’s a reason some people end up in marketing, others in sales, finance, or operations. One would hope, somehow, that the finance people do the finance, and the marketing people the marketing.
I've seen brainstorming work well, and I've seen it fail miserably. When it works well, it usually because of most the right ingredients were present:
* size of group — too many people gets unwieldy; I think I've seen studies show the right number is around 7-10
* diversity — it helps to have members from different departments, different disciplines, etc. to bring different perspectives
* preparation — I believe it also helps to have the group 'prepare' for the brainstorm session – by sharing research/articles/books; field trips; shopping for competitors' products; etc.
* leadership – the best brainstorm sessions have a leader that encourages participation, discourages negativity, and captures ideas — all the while not taking sides or expressing a viewpoint.
* structured — I think the most successful brainstorming sessions I've been involved in were fairly structured, with exercises that broke the 'big problem' into smaller chunks to work on, and stressed speed and quantity of ideas
* non-judgmental — last, brainstorming participants need to be non-judgmental during the brainstorming; evaluating the ideas generated should happen only after brainstorming is complete.
IDEO has made a pretty successful business by integrating brainstorming into their core design process. The brainstorming sessions I've attended seem to fit the mold of the one you describe, but I ascribe that to the fact that 1) the so-called "creatives" were protecting their turf and didn't engage in the process in the right spirit, and 2) most of us haven't been trained in high-quality brainstorming techniques. As a consequence, brainstorming sessions aren't taken seriously by anybody (the creatives don't think anybody else could have a good idea and nobody else thinks they'll be taken seriously anyway, so why bother) and simply become a checklist item. If organizations don't value and reward creativity by employees in all areas, then ultimately they'll lose market share. A marketing department can't carry an entire business.
I think brainstorming is essential to the creative process. Ideas need to come from somewhere and although sometimes you do have to force them, brainstorming puts things out there so that there are ideas in existence to work with.
When I was the creative director at my agency, we would routinely gather our staff to brainstorm ideas. This was most effective when working with a new account or campaign when we wanted broader input from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. More than once our secretary came up with a creative idea we ended up using.
But this process should be used judiciously, otherwise it does become a waste of time. Certainly, the day-to-day creative process and projects should be left to the creatives.