Brainstorming: Terrible for Solving Problems

A thunderstorm in Port-la-Nouvelle, since brainstorming images are boring.

I’d like to illustrate one of the main pitfalls of brainstorming with a situation I see frequently: when I meet with a client for the first time, one of the things I try to determine is “What problem are you trying to solve?”  More often than not, they’re not completely clear themselves.  The typical answers I get include:

  • I need to improve my website
  • I want more sales
  • We’re not using social media very well

Note that while these are, generally, suggesting an area where a problem might exist, they’re not really the problem itself.  Compare to these hypothetical answers:

  • My goal for the website is to get at least 10% of new visitors registered for our free online orientation course, but it’s only getting about 3%.
  • Right now our ecommerce sales are averaging only about $15 each and packing and shipping costs are really eating into profits, so we’d like to get that average sale above $25.
  • We want to be using Pinterest to drive branding and interest in our jewelry line among upper-income white women, but don’t even have an account yet and don’t know how best to approach it.

See how the second list is far more focused on a specific achievable something?  Something you can envision being achieved?  When a new client says they want “more sales,” I typically ask, “So if you make one penny more this year than next, you’d consider that a success?”

The Pitfalls of Brainstorming

Oh, but here’s the pitfall.  Many a business owner’s mind goes directly to the default strategy of many a school or business:  brainstorming.  If you’re not sure, let’s come up with as many ideas as we can!  That’s what being creative looks like!

But here’s what we get when someone starts brainstorming problems:  lots of problems.  Not only that, most of those problems generated would still not be satisfying successes even if they were solved.

In fact, now, instead of just a mushy sense of direction where the problem might lie, you now have a huge pile of items that you probably shouldn’t be worrying about at all, pulling you in every direction.

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

More specifically, brainstorming is the wrong strategy because it triggers the wrong kind of thinking.  Solving a problem is convergent thinking–mental effort that converges on a single thing: the solution.  Convergent thinking is, essentially, thinking that eliminates possibilities (such as approaches that won’t likely solve the problem).

Brainstorming, on the other hand is divergent thinking–mental effort that increases the number of options or possibilities.  Creativity is divergent.  But often so is distraction and procrastination.

I once worked for someone who asked me to brainstorm with her different ways she could remember the dates that I’d be out of town.  To do so would have been wasted time because we already had a sufficient solution:  putting the dates on her calendar.  Could we have spent lots of time being creative?  Sure.  But more creativity (read: divergent thinking) would bring us no closer to solving the problem than we already were.  We only needed to implement the solution.

When Convergence is Most Appropriate

We circle back now to the situation I mentioned at the beginning.  “What problem are you trying to solve?”   And think also of another question:  “What could you paint a picture of?”  The first question is likely to have a single best answer.  The other, to have multiple equally valid answers.

That’s the trick here.  As entrepreneurs, we like to think of ourselves as creative problem solvers, but “creative” and “problem solver” require two different, diametrically opposed modes of thinking.

A better way to go about it is to first decide, “Do I want more or fewer things?”

  • If you want to be decisive, you want fewer.
  • If you want to focus, you want fewer.
  • If you want to be clear, you want fewer.

Those are all terrible situations to use brainstorming.  Instead you want to use logic, or to prioritize and eliminate the lowest-priority items.  Sherlock Holmes never said to Watson, “Let’s sit down and brainstorm all the things that might have happened!”  Instead, he said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

When Divergence is Most Appropriate

On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “We’ve tried everything and none of it worked,” you want more.  If you’ve been asking, “What else could we offer…?” you want more.  That’s when you brainstorm.  I should note that if it’s clear that you don’t already have a solution to a problem in your set of things you’re considering, then maybe you can brainstorm first–but switch quickly to narrowing!  That’s the scenario much less often than people think, though.

In short, when you are determining a goal, or a problem you intend to work on solving, use processes that converge on your best answer, not generate more.  Eliminate, narrow, and prioritize.

Image by Maxime Raynal from France – Orage PLN, CC BY 2.0,

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

About Michael J. Coffey

Michael started learning about online marketing as the web store manager for a scrappy little game retailer during the "dot com bubble" of the 1990s. Since then he's helped fitness companies, tea wholesalers and retailers, lawyers, clothing designers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs in many other fields. In his spare time he drinks very high quality tea, writes letters with a fountain pen, and reads literature.

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