The concepts presented and opinions expressed in this article are informed by my long-running and wide-ranging inquiry into how the new comes into being, beyond models and methods (read more), coupled with more than 30 years of experience as an innovation consultant working with a variety of clients including Diageo, European Commission, McCain Foods, NHS and Shell.

Further, for seven years I was a member of the team that taught the Creative Problem Solving module of the MA in Managing Change at University of Brighton. The founding fathers of the creative problem solving discipline were Sid Parnes, and Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming.

I hope you will find the article stimulating, insightful and useful.


Creative and synthetic forms of imagination: each has its place

Producing ideas through synthetic imagination

Osborn’s brainstorming method
Issues with brainstorming
Why Newcreators reject brainstorming

Producing breakthrough ideas through creative imagination

Some research studies and scholarly works

Creative and synthetic forms of imagination: each has its place

Producing ideas through synthetic imagination

Sometimes a modest idea is all that’s required. The answer lies inside us and we just need to bring it to the surface by means of what author Napoleon Hill calls synthetic imagination.

Through the faculty of synthetic imagination, one may arrange old concepts, ideas, or plans into new combinations. This faculty creates nothing. It merely works with the material of experience, education, and observation with which it is fed. It is the faculty used most by the inventor, with the exception of he who draws upon the creative imagination, when he cannot solve his problem through synthetic imagination.

Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
View more quotes about brainstorming and related matters

One can say that the nagual ² accounts for creativity,” [don Juan] finally said and looked at me piercingly. “The nagual is the only part of us that can create.”

He remained quiet, looking at me. I felt he was definitely leading me into an area I had wished he would elucidate further. He had said that the tonal 1 did not create anything, but only witnessed and assessed. I asked how he explained the fact that we construct superb structures and machines.

“That’s not creativity,” he said. “That’s only molding.”

The tonal and the nagual, excerpted from Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda
1. The nagual corresponds with creative imagination and the tonal with synthetic imagination. Find out more
SCAMPER, originated by Alex Osborn
When businesses and nonprofit organisations are seeking ideas, a diverge–converge ideation method such as brainstorming is usually employed, sometimes in conjunction with SCAMPER or another tool, to help people generate a wide range of options.

You can read more about SCAMPER and its origins in the article Reappreciating Applied Imagination: Osborn’s lost SCAMPER, by GK VanPatter, co-founder of design firm Humantific.

In the world at large, it is standard practice for idea generation work to be carried out in a group setting, even though an idea is conceived in the mind of an individual..

When idea generation work (“diverge”) is complete, the options are evaluated and the most promising one is selected (“converge”) for further development and eventual introduction.

Brainstorming and other diverge-converge methods enable group members to recall and repurpose buried thoughts, connect disparate notions, and combine existing ideas into new ones — a process known as combinatorial creativity.

In a brainstorm the default method of finding ideas is by free association. The group having been given the problem or challenge statement, seek ideas in a spontaneous, accidental fashion through internal ‘semantic networks’ of association connecting the challenge to other words, phrases, concepts and experiences they can recall from memory.

Kevin Byron, Creative reflections on brainstorming, London Review of Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, July 2012, 201–213
View more quotes about brainstorming and related matters
I am not using the word brainstorming to mean several people sitting in a conference room, tossing out ideas willy-nilly and arguing about which one to pursue, as seen in reality TV shows such as The Apprentice and Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars. Rather, I am talking about the rules-based process invented in the late 1930s by Alex Osborn, co-founder of the US advertising agency that became BBDO.

Osborn’s brainstorming method

Osborn’s brainstorming method is founded on his belief that quantity breeds quality, and his brainstorming rules are designed to maximise the quantity of ideas generated.

These are the rules:

  • Criticism is ruled out.
  • Quantity is wanted.
  • Freewheeling is welcomed.
  • Combination and improvement are sought.

  • Six to 10 participants seated in an arc.
  • Facilitator (essential, as various research studies have indicated).
  • Recorder (not essential but speeds up the capture of ideas).
  • Warm-up session.
  • The facilitator states the goal of this particular brainstorming meeting and provides contextual information.
  • The goal is restated in the form “How might we …” (HMW). Note that this invitation stem was introduced by Sid Parnes in his Creative Behavior Guidebook, published in 1967. Despite claims to the contrary, HMW is not proprietary to IDEO or any other organisation. See Who Owns How Might We? by GK VanPatter on the Humantific website.
  • Participants call out whatever ideas come to mind, without self-censorship. Building on the ideas of others is encouraged.
  • The recorder lists the announced ideas on sheets of flipchart paper, numbering each item for later reference.
  • The lists are displayed on the wall as soon as they are produced.

Issues with brainstorming

Many research studies have been conducted in connection with Osborn’s brainstorming method. Several were designed to test the validity of his ‘quantity breeds quality’ assertion and, although there is some truth in it, laboratory conditions do not reflect workplace reality.

‘Quantity breeds quality’ is based on the assumption that if you produce a sufficiently large number of ideas, the one that’s needed will be among them. This is rather like making a lot of different keys in the hope that one of them will fit the lock, rather than knowing how locks work, understanding the workings of this specific lock and making the one key that fits (as demonstrated literally here).

If there is one simple recommendation that can be distilled from my results, it is this: Creativity practitioners and researchers would do well to worry less about quantity, and more about quality – before, during, and after idea generation.

From quantity to quality: Cognitive, motivational and social aspects of creative idea generation and selection (pdf), doctoral dissertation submitted by Eric Fulco Rietzschel
View more quotes about brainstorming and related matters
These are some of the other issues concerning Osborn’s brainstorming method:

  • Production blocking2
  • Collaborative fixation2
  • Evaluation apprehension2
  • Free-writing2
  • Personality characteristics (e.g. extroverts outperform introverts)2
  • Illusion of group productivity2
  • Social matching2
  • Regression to the mean
  • Social loafing (aka free riding)
  • Social anxiety
2. See Wikipedia entry for Brainstorming for a brief description of this item.

Why Newcreators reject brainstorming

This is why Newcreators reject brainstorming, even at the conceptualisation stage:

  • Idea conception is an individual act.
  • The quest for quantity is misconceived (see my earlier comment about locks and keys, and this passage below).
  • Creative imagination is not deployed.
  • Discussion is not permitted, even though this has been shown to be beneficial.
  • Introverts, autistic people, other neurodivergent members of society and the socially anxious struggle to contribute their ideas.

Conceiving breakthrough ideas requires creative imagination

A breakthrough idea is one that is potent (showing significant value generation potential) and fitting (the key fits the lock).

Conceive an idea that is potent, and that fits the lock
Synthetic imagination is sufficient for producing a modest idea. But when a breakthrough idea is required, one that is potent (showing significant value generation potential) and fitting (the key fits the lock), the answer is unlikely to reside inside us, waiting to be unearthed. Instead of working outwards from our inner world, we must start in the outside world and work inwards.

This means immersing ourselves in the demands and dynamics of the project (either through Readiness work or by other means), opening ourselves to the unknown, activating creative imagination and foreseeing a possibility for enriching the world or a particular piece of it with value, meaning and joy,

Through the faculty of creative imagination, the finite mind of man has direct communication with Infinite Intelligence3. It is the faculty through which ‘hunches’ and ‘inspirations’ are received. It is by this faculty that all basic, or new ideas are handed over to man.

Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (download pdf of entire book) | Read more about synthetic and creative imagination
3. Napoleon Hill’s Infinite Intelligence is similar in meaning to Edward Matchett’s media and my G-field | Read more about Infinite Intelligence

During an appearance on the BBC Breakfast television show, David Arnold was asked how he goes about composing music. He replied: “You walk around with your aerials out and it gets delivered to you. It’s more about feeling it than thinking about it.”

View more quotes from people discussing how creative imagination influences their work
The imagined scenario is represented as a vision of realised potential. This is a depiction — an actual picture accompanied by a vivid and compelling synopsis — of how the world will look, sound and feel when the new creation exists in its finished state (even though we do not yet know what form it will take) and its value generation potential is being realised without constraint.

Work carried out up to this point should be sufficient for team members to summon from their imaginations a potent idea for a new creation (product, service, enterprise, establishment, theatrical production etc.) with the potential to generate the imagined value, meaning and joy for customers or users and other beneficiaries.

The creative power of Conceptualisation is then deployed, enabling the development a concept for a new something or other that, further down the track, will generate the foreseen value, meaning and joy. .

Read more

The Newcreate way of conceiving breakthrough ideas

Some research studies and scholarly works

Creative reflections on brainstorming (text) by Kevin Byron, London Review of Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, July 2012, 201–213.
Highly recommended — contact me to receive the paper in Word format

Does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking? (often referred to as the Yale study; abstract only — no pdf available) by Donald W. Taylor, Paul C. Berry and Clifford H. Block, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1958), pp. 23-47

Does Quantity Generate Quality? Testing the Fundamental Principle of Brainstorming (pdf) by Alfredo Muñoz Adánez (2005), The Spanish Journal of Psychology 8(2):215-20

Effects of Quantity and Quality Instructions on Brainstorming (pdf) by Paul B. Paulus, Nicholas W. Kohn, and Lauren E. Arditti, March 2011, The Journal of Creative Behavior 45(1)

Enhancing Ideational Creativity in Groups by Paul B. Paulus, University of Texas at Arlington, and Vincent R. Brown, September 2003, in book: Group Creativity (pp.110-136)

From quantity to quality (pdf) by Eric Fulco Rietzschel, PhD dissertation

The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries by Charlan J. Nemeth, Bernard Personnaz, Marie Personnaz, and Jack A Goncalo (2004), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. European Journal of Social Psychology 34(4):365-374

Making Group Brainstorming More Effective: Recommendations from an Associative Memory Perspective (pdf) by Vincent R. Brown, MITRE, and Paul B. Paulus, University of Texas at Arlington, December 2002, Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(6):208-212

Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration (pdf) by Brian Mullen , Craig Johnson and Eduardo Salas, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Volume 12, 1991 – Issue 1

Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle (pdf) by Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe, September 1987, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53(3):497-509

Quality Conformity and Conflict:  Questioning the Assumptions of Osborn’s Brainstorming Technique (pdf) by Olga Goldenberg and Jennifer Wiley, University of Illinois at Chicago, The Journal of Problem Solving,  volume 3, no. 2 (Winter 2011)

Reflection enhances creativity: Beneficial effects of idea evaluation on idea generation (pdf) by Ning Hao, Yixuan Ku, Meigui Liu, Yi Hu, Mark Bodner, Roland H. Grabner, and Andreas Fink, Brain and Cognition, Volume 103, March 2016, Pages 30-37

A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry (pdf) by Scott G. Isaksen, Creativity Research Unit, Creative Problem Solving Group Inc., Buffalo, New York, USA, June 1998

The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity? (text) by Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth (2008), Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08

So you think you know how to Brainstorm? Part 1 | Part 2 | by Andy Wilkins (Perspectiv), Ranjna S. Narayan (National Grid), and Scott G. Isaksen (Creative Problem Solving Group)

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External websites

Ten Dots Not Connected: Appreciating Alex Osborn, by GK VanPatter, co-founder of Humantific

This website

Create-the-new methods | Setting Newcreate in a wider context

Create-the-new work: create alone, create together, help others create

How does Newcreate compare with design thinking?

How Newcreators use mind, body and spirit to create the new and enrich the world

How to put Newcreate into practice

The Max4 Principle: The maximum group size for a proper conversation is four

The Newcreate way of conceiving breakthrough ideas

The seven creative powers

The Parable of the Ox

Quotes about brainstorming and related matters

Readiness work

The two forms of imagination: creative and synthetic

Index to entire site (60+ pages)

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