Better than Brainstorming

An Alternative to Brainstorming may also help prevent Burnout by Dr Suzanne Moss

I’ve recently edited this article. It was first published on LinkedIn 12th April, 2017


Just to put you in the picture, “Better than Brainstorming” was the working title for a 1.5 hour segment presenting for the remarkable Allan Parker of Peak Performance Development. I’ve brought some of the content into this paper, since discovering an interesting article while scanning the Harvard Business Review this morning:Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person” by Eric Garton (April 7, 2017). I realised the connection with the work I’ve developed, especially when reading this sentence:

Executives need to own up to their role in creating the workplace stress that leads to burnout—heavy workloads, job insecurity, and frustrating work routines that include too many meetings and far too little time for creative work.

 This article focuses on that last phrase about too many meetings and far too little time for creative work, and how those two areas might intersect.

About meetings…Much can be done to make meetings more effective, and less time consuming, saving resources. An expert in organisational behaviour and performance enhancement, Allan Parker can work what appear to be miracles in this arena. Plus, the traditional brainstorming that happens in meetings might be traded for another way that is far less stressful, more creative and effective.

Firstly, here’s why you might consider trying something other than brainstorming. Almost three years ago I came across the article “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work: Try this Instead” by Rebecca Greenfield writing for Fast CompanyHere are the main points:

  •  Only a few tend to dominate the ‘out loud’ part of brainstorming.
  • ‘anchoring’ happens – the early, obvious ideas have too great an influence on the rest of the session leading to groupthink, which tends to crush original ideas.
  • Brainstorming also favours least creative ideas known as ‘conformity pressure’
  • Convergence happens too quickly with too much time and energy spent supporting the obvious (and possibly safest) idea.

Greenfield reports alternatives proposed by researchers Prof. Leigh Thompson and Prof. Loren Nordgren where idea generation happens separately and before discussion as ‘brainwriting’. Thompson asks participants to post all the ideas on a wall, without names attached, and vote for which is considered the best, and then discussion of those ideas takes place. She showed this approach could make big improvements in idea generation.

In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration Thompson reveals other surprising findings:

• Left to their own devices, teams are less creative than individuals
• Providing “rules” to teams actually increases inventiveness
• Striving for quality results in less creativity than striving for quantity

 Brainwriting can make a huge difference. You might just jot down a few ideas or try this method recommended by Julia Cameron, acclaimed author of The Artist’s Way: write your ideas long-hand, stream-of-consciousness style – whatever is on your mind – for three pages, and remember ‘nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included’.[1] And, I strongly suspect that…

…brainstorming and brainwriting are neither disruptive nor enriching enough to foster the best possibilities.

That’s where Creative work comes into the mix. Now, let’s clarify what creative work means. Roughly, creative work might be translated as taking time and space (head-space included), to allow for the freedom to have ideas and follow them through with creative processes until something new is produced.

Creativity is the name given to the experience available through creating, which may or may not produce desired results. Risky, it can be enabled – nothing can be gained without some risk – or disabled, often because of fear. Regardless of outcome, the process alone is valuable for the reduction of stress hormones, which over extended periods can result in burn-out.[2]

For the individual on the brink of burnout, certainly, a creative practice can be very replenishing due to the cortisol reducing effects (more on this soon), however, to be effective, mindset must be attended to.

Carol Dweck, acclaimed author of Mindset, notes that your creative skills are largely determined by whether you approach the creative process with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset where the process and persistence is more important than the outcome.[3]

The first component of my Creative Visionary Capability System of coaching addresses mindset. Getting clarity around one’s creative capability again is crucial, after all, if you think you’re not creative, how can you expect to think creatively?!

I say again, because at the age of 5 children assume they simply are creative! 98% of children have been shown to be creative geniuses by George Land and his team, in a famous NASA study (1968). They evaluated a group of 4-5 year old children using a creativity assessment he’d designed to identity divergent thinking in engineers. The same subjects were tested repeatedly against the same criteria as they progressed into adulthood where the measure of creative genius dropped to only 2%.[4]

What happened?! School education generally trains analysis and fast solution-finding known as convergent thinking, preventing the slower, imaginative, creative processes. This began many years ago with the demands of the industrial revolution, Ken Robinson notes, reading, writing and math required by industry were championed and the more creative subjects sidelined.[5]

Odd ideas about creativity are pervasive. Back in 1992, in his book Serious Creativity, Edward de Bono created a distinction between artistic creativity and creativity used in making business decisions, naming the latter kind of creativity as serious. Such a distinction is not at all useful given more recent creative brain research.

Research has shown that simple creative tasks drop the stress hormone Cortisol.

Last year, a Drexel University study found colouring – yes, colouring with colour pencils – substantially dropped the stress hormones that wreck havoc in the body. The lead researcher and award winning Girija Kaimal, interested in the health outcomes of visual expression, noted that everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.[6] Support is key. Might this be embarrassing in your workplace? One of the teachings of renowned Zen Master DT Suzuki[7] might be useful here: don’t worry about what others think!

As an aside, I gave a lecture for The Jung Society last year on the benefits of mindful colouring, with a mini-workshop on how to create extraordinary effects. In the audience was a young Qantas pilot who said he found colouring a great way to unwind…as soon as he landed in his hotel room!

During such gentle tasks, leader in creative brain research Professor Nancy Andreasen, discovered a brain state she called REST – Random Episodic Silent Thought – where, in response to a question posed earlier, unprecedented neural connections can occur giving rise to an original idea.[8]

However, for new output, there needs to be new input… which is why innovation and creativity courses, (for example, this one I completed from Pennsylvania State University) advocate the DSD – Do Something Different. Usual ways of thinking are like superhighways in the brain, whereas fresh ideas come from roads not previously travelled! So, there is good neuro-scientific reason for ‘disruption’ and that is for the detour; the pathway to fresh possibilities.

What if creative work happened as preparation for meetings?

Given the neuroscience, it makes sense for an easy, creative task to take place before brainwriting, and then the sharing of ideas can take place, as Thompson suggests, where there are rules of engagement. Integrating creative practice into workplace systems has already been shown to be valuable and for quite some years now. Apple, Google and the work of Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter – are great examples.

But I’m not creative!

People will undoubtedly say this, and what can be done? Leading from the top helps, as does getting outside assistance. My system that is foundational to my work came out of the intention of helping people reclaim their creative capability. Six integrated components foster fertile ground for creative thinking.

 The bones of the System were there in my first creativity (in teaching and research) workshop for 20 university academics in 2014 at The Australian National University. I developed the 2-hour session into a 2-day Reclaim your Creativity course.

A survey of participants (90% of whom do not identify as creative types) from March 2015 to May 2016 yielded these results:

100% found the course relevant and worthwhile

89% found the processes used were calming

83% of participants said their ability to handle stress improved

94% said yes, their creativity was reignited

78% said they were inspired to follow a new creative pursuit and

83% agreed their beliefs about their ability to be creative changed as a result of the course.

The system enables customisation for workplace small group workshops and one-to-one coaching programs.

As a takeaway, instead of brainstorming, you might try brainwriting – writing everything that’s on your mind, then draw out the ‘gems’. And rather than doing brainwriting cold, warm up beforehand by doing something different, something easy and creative. Simple colouring or doodling is fine, and here’s another example below.

1.Recall what you most loved doing when you were creative as a child. Now, if you could see a shape in your mind’s eye that symbolises this for you, great! Draw that.

  1. Breathe normally with feet flat on the floor and spine straight, focusing on your breathing for one minute (or more), eyes opened or closed as you wish. Keep your attention on the movement of your chest as your breath moves all the way in and all the way out. Allow tension to ease out of the muscles of your face, shoulders and belly area, inwardly asking What might be easier?
  2. Draw: That shape you drew in step 1…ask your inner 5 year old to draw it 20 different ways. Did you know you can draw with scissors?! Perhaps your creative inner child has another suggestion… Now what was that other thing you were thinking of?
  3. Remember, ‘changing the channel’ in your brain can be very helpful for getting fresh ideas.



Former physiotherapist and university lecturer, Dr Suzanne Moss is a coach, educator and artist specialising in fostering creative thinking and helping people shine rather than burn out.


[1] Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way. London: Pan Macmillan, 1995, 10.

[2] Esther M Sternberg MD, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. New York: WH Freeman & Co., 2001 – Sternberg notes the difference between short term invigorating stress and chronic stress where stress hormones, such as cortisol, continue to pump out, shutting down immune cells’ responses so we are then far less able to fight off new invaders.

[3] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine, 2016.

[4] Reported in Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, 1998 by George Land and Beth Jarman

[5] Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything. London: Penguin, 2009.



[8] Nancy C. Andreasen, The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Penguin, 2006.