BrainShopping. Now, you can forget about BrainStorming!

I had always believed in brainstorming, if only with myselfSince at least 16 April 1975 when I began working for and eventually became the Chief Information Officer of FORI, Forest Research Institute, based in Los Baños, Laguna, the PhilippinesUntil today, 7 April 2009 Manila time, 1230 hours. I was writing about Blue Ocean Strategy and then suddenly I found myself reading on brainstorming. So for the last 3 hours, I had been brainstorming about brainstorming itself.

In 2006, a story on Wall Street Journal told everyone that ‘Brainstorming works best if people scramble for ideas on their own’ (cited by Robert Sutton, 26 July 2006, Home alone, in the office left to yourself, you brainstorm best.
Maybe. But you’re not alone.
‘Brainstorming is a process for developing creative solutions to problems,’ says Don Clark (10 October 2008, I think it is, but that limits brainstorming to just solving problems. In my way of thinking, in creative thinking, which is what brainstorming leads to, when you begin with the problem, you have a problem!
Another way of looking at that is this: When you look at the problem first, you are defining creative thinking as 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, exactly as Thomas Alva Edisondefines genius. I look at it the other way; it’s the opposite of genius: Creative thinking is 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration. It’s (almost) all in the mind, if you don’t mind. (I’ve written about the 90/10 equation of genius in my ‘The Smart Revolution,’ 13 January 2008, Scientists and consultants start with a problem, but the smarter thing for them to do, as far as I’m concerned, is not to assume that they know the problem, to avoid reflecting their own bias – let the search for the problem be part of the creative thinking process. As a creative writer, I never assume that I know the problem – deciding which among perspectives to use to write it all up – I don’t begin to write until I have so much information at my fingertips. In this essay alone, I have 35 citations – of course, I have many more in my notes.
The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lists down quite a number of techniques in brainstorming ( freewriting (as in ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron), breaking down into topic levels, listing / bulleting, looking at it in 3 different perspectives, looking at it in 6 different views (cubing), comparing (simile), clustering / mapping / webbing, relating the parts, 6 questions (who, what, where, when, why, how), thinking outside the box, using charts or shapes, considering purpose and audience, using dictionary / thesaurus / encyclopedia. At one time or another, in at least 34 years of writing, I have used some of these techniques myself.
MindTools describes it this way (
Brainstorming is a lateral thinking process. It asks that people come up with ideas and thoughts that seem at first to be a bit shocking or crazy. You can then change and improve them into ideas that are useful, and often stunningly original.
That’s the ideal. That’s not your usual brainstorming session. There is always someone who rejects a new idea, or a wild, preposterous one – all of which you need to lead you on to creative thinking. Yes, lateral thinking is creative thinking. No, brainstorming is not automatically lateral thinking; it can be lateral thinking if you follow the advice of Edward De Bono and use his ‘Po’ as word or as sound as a device to lead on and on the generation of ideas without stopping to talk against any of the ideas until the last idea has been suggested. Brainstorming is for generating ideas, not animosity. If you’re a faultfinder or a nitpicker, you don’t belong in a brainstorming session. You’re anathema. You’re not part of the solution; you’re part of the problem.
You want to reinvent the wheel? Po. Yes, properly done, brainstorming ‘asks that people come up with ideas and thoughts that seem at first to be a bit shocking or crazy.’ Po. Outlandish suggestion? Po. You’re suggesting on the suggestion? Po.
MindTools says that with a group, the first brainstorming step is to ‘define the problem you want solved clearly, and lay out any criteria to be met’ (as cited). I and my Creative Circles will not advise that. If you begin with a problem, your 1st step in creative thinking (brainstorming) is the 1st step in critical thinking; you are starting on the wrong foot. Instead of a relaxed atmosphere, now everybody wants to be the one to define the problem clearly. The ideas now compete against each other, instead of just parade themselves as in a beauty & brains contest. Everyone will be thinking down, not thinking up.
Not only that; when you begin with a problem, you put yourself in the box and so you can’t think out of the box. The scientists are trained to think like that, and that is the reason there are so few of them who are creative thinkers. Many people know Albert Einstein, Howard Gardner, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow. I know one who is to my mind an authentic creative mindster alive: William Dar, Director General and Team Captain of ICRISAT, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. (You can read more about the topnotch Team ICRISAT at and in my blog if you click
The one who invented the process of brainstorming, in my judgment, is Alex Osborn. SkyMark calls him the ‘Father of the Brainstorm’ ( Osborn called it ‘Think Up’ and had 4 rules that fit perfectly the ideal brainstorming session, as cited by MindTools (
(1) The goal of a ‘Think Up’ session would be to come up with as many ideas as possible.
(2) There would be absolutely no criticism of any thoughts or ideas.
(3) No idea should be considered too outlandish and such ideas would be encouraged.
(4) Members of a ‘Think Up’ Team should build upon one another’s ideas.
Osborn wrote How To Think Up in 1942 (cited in I worked as a copywriter of Pacifica Publicity Bureau in Makati in the mid-1970s and I came to know of the creative genius of the advertising agency BBDO, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn. Osborn was one good explanation of BBDO’s creativity. I don’t drink, but the BBDO slogan I most remember is the one for Schaefer Beer: ‘The one to have when you’re having more than one.’ In 2006 and 2007, BBDO was named the ‘Most Awarded Agency Network in the World’ by The Gunn Report ( Osborn was a founding partner, and invented CPS, Creative Problem Solving process; he had earlier come up with Applied Imagination ( He posited 7 steps to CPS:
1. Orientation – Pointing up the problem
2. Preparation – Gathering pertinent data
3. Analysis – Breaking down the relevant material
4. Hypothesis – Piling up alternatives by way of ideas
5. Incubation – Letting (go) to invite illumination
6. Synthesis – Putting the pieces together
7. Verification – Judging the resultant ideas.
No brainstorming? Ah, now Osborn has made creative thinking too complicated for me!
I like better how the IfM, Institute for Manufacturing of the University of Cambridge lists as the rules for brainstorming (
Ground rules for brainstorming
1. Don’t edit what is said and remember not to criticize ideas.
2. Go for quantity of ideas at this point; narrow down the list later.
3. Encourage wild or exaggerated ideas (creativity is the key).
4. Build on the ideas of others (one member might say something that ‘sparks’ another member’s idea.)
You end the session when everyone has had a chance to participate, says IfM, when no more ideas are being offered, when you have made a last call for ideas.
But I like best the rules as Alex Osborn put them (as cited by Sutton cited above):
(1) Don’t allow criticism.
(2) Encourage wild ideas.
(3) Go for quantity.
(4) Combine and/or improve on others’ ideas.
You know of course that the usual brainstorming is stormy, which befits the name, and which defeats the purpose. If you have negative minds – and you usually do – you usually can’t get out of argumentation or debate. In the end, while everyone agrees on something, it may be only the 13th best idea of all that could have been generated but for the negative minds.
For that matter, if you simply use De Bono’s Po as the one and only rule in a brainstorming session, you’ll be all right. In a Po session, negatives cannot spoil it – everything is acceptable. Try it sometime!
Or you can try Frank A Hilario’s Creative Circles instead of Edward De Bono’s Po as a device for brainstorming, which is the first step in creative thinking. De Bono’s paradigm of creative thinking is lateral thinking; mine is virtual thinking. In lateral thinking, you explore other possibilities in an area as wide as the horizon; in virtual thinking, you explore not only the horizon but the sky and the ground you’re standing on. (See also my ‘Thinking Virtual? Shoot first, ask questions later!’ Like I always say, 'Sky's the limit. Your imagination is the sky.'
What about Tony Buzan’s mind mapping as a brainstorming technique? A mind map acts as the ‘Swiss Army Knife of the brain’ (Buzan Centre, Indeed, if you look at a mind map, it looks (almost) exactly like a Swiss Army Knife when all those little tools are drawn out at the same time, emanating from one body. Sorry, but a mind map is not my way of brainstorming; it’s too logical for me, all those lines and links to draw and consider. I can think faster than I can write and draw lines.
And software for brainstorming? I want a free hand, literally, and these software cramp my style, 13 of them being:
BrainStorm (
Computer Aided Brainstorming (
ConceptDraw MINDMAP (
FreeMind (
IdeaFisher (
Inspiration (
MindManager (
MindMapper 2009 (
PC Outline for Windows (
Scientific Brainstorming Word Category Upgrade Pack for Windows (
TheBrain (
ThoughtOffice Brainstorming & Creativity Software (
XMIND 2008 ( 
Those 2 with very long intimidating names are to me exactly that. Actually, most if not all of them are mind mappers, and I get lost in mind maps.
Borrowing its name from The Perfect Storm movie, Vadim Kotelnikov presents his ‘Perfect Brainstorming’ technique for team-based creative thinking ( On the whole, his instructions look good, but they too are too complicated for me I’d get lost in remembering the rules and not in the brainstorming. For instance, Perfect Brainstorming requires that I believe in the Left Brain / Right Brain dichotomy – I don’t. I have only 1 brain. If I am the team leader, I have to consider ‘collective tacit and explicit knowledge’ – you mean, as each idea comes up, I have to be able to tell whether it’s tacit or explicit? Perfect Brainstorming requires that the ideas that come up should arise from the strategies already identified to achieve the objectives already defined. And so on and so forth. Too many rules! I want a perfect idea, not a perfect brainstorming.
What about internationally acclaimed creative thinker Michael Michalko and his ideas? In the Preface to his book Thinkertoys (‘designed to change the way you think,’ says the Wall Street Journal,, he asks me to look at myself and decide who am I: A squiggle? A nothing? A diamond? ( And he explains the choices: The squiggle speaks of ‘disturbance and incoherence,’ the blank sheet of feeling ‘empty and meaningless;’ the diamond is the best choice because ‘it feels valuable, feels worth giving, and feels the most meaningful.’ Maybe so. Logically, yes. But when I’m brainstorming, I’m going to choose all 3, not just 1; I’m supposed to suspend judgment until all ideas are in, whether squiggle, empty rhetoric, or a diamond in the rough. All ideas are diamonds in the rough until judgment day, which comes much, much later, thank God. ‘In the end,’ Michalko says, ‘our creativity is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do.’ I think not. Rather, my experience of 50 years of creativity (since high school) tells me it is what we have not considered that decides our creativity. We are always short of ideas because we limit our brainstorming by coming up with too many rules and guidelines. We are not truly free thinkers.
‘Brainstorming,’ says Writer’s Web, ‘provides a nearly guaranteed solution to Writer’s Block’ ( Me, I want a 100% guarantee against Writer’s Block. I’m done with brainstorming. So, considering all the negatives in brainstorming, today, I’d like to offer the universe of creative thinkers the new concept I have just invented, brainshopping, to replacebrainstorming. Brainstorming is shopping for that 1 great idea. Brainshopping is what it says it is: shopping for great and not-so-great ideas. We need all the ideas we can get.
Did I say ‘new’ concept? Yes, new concept, but not new word. I just checked and I found others had invented the word before me. Most occurrences were either puns (brains shopping) or literal (brain’s shopping circuitry, having something to do with neuroscientists studying how the human brain decides to buy or not to buy). None comes close to my idea of brainshopping in contradistinction to brainstorming. Sanjit Talukdar of India differentiates ‘body shopping’ (sending IT workers abroad) from ‘brain shopping’ (‘outsourcing of network-delivered services,’ Like a call center in Manila. Close but not quite is Ellen Lupton & Jennifer Cole Phillips’s kind of brainshopping (‘how designers get ideas’), but it’s really brainstorming, beginning with defining problems (9 January 2009, The fact that their brainshopping is a combination of brainstorming and mind mapping still doesn’t make it close to my idea of it. Mind mapping is plainly brainstorming; so, their brainshopping is still brainstorming. Frank Hilario's BrainShopping does away with brainstorming altogether!
When you go out window-shopping, you just look at the goods in and out of the glass cases, on manikins or racks, in display windows or boxes all over the floor. No commitments. You are not required to buy anything; nobody stops you when you go out empty-handed, but you had your eyes full and your imagination reeling. Don’t you just love window-shopping?
Everyone goes window-shopping, so why not brainshopping? In your mind, you shop for ideas in spotless 1st class malls or wide-enough 3rd class shops, or small stores along narrow side streets. You visit the beach and look out for silhouettes of ships and a spectacular sunset. You look up at the sky and see a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and another, and another. You hear a bird singing. This is what brainshopping is all about! I remember that we copywriters of Pacifica used to go out and buy cheap second-hand color magazines from the US, then we simply scanned the pages until we got to like the ads or layouts that we saw. Brainshopping. You start with a smile, you end up with a smile, the proper attitude for generating lots of wild and wonderful ideas.
By way of the metaphor of window-shopping, let me now give you the 7 Rules of BrainShopping so that you may enjoy it yourself in your creative thinking sessions:
(1) Walk, don’t run.
(2) Don’t judge a book by its cover.
(3) Try it for size; you break it, you buy it.
(4) Don’t ask questions; you’re there for the view.
(5) Linger in the shop, and don’t buy until closing time.
(6) You have money to buy a few items, not the whole shop.
(7) No return, no exchange! Instead, do another brainshopping.
Now, that's the brainshopper's attitude!
Brainshopping you can do on your own. With a team, brainshopping is ideal for thinking out or thinking up, for instance, your Blue Ocean Strategy. Which reminds me, I was starting to think on it before I interrupted myself. So you will excuse me while I brainshop on that one.

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