Why It’s Time To Move From Brainstorming To Brainsteering

3 hanging lightbulbs graphic

By Andrew Barraclough, vice-president of design, GSK

Stimulating and creating a space – both physically, emotionally and intellectually – where ideas can be formed, new thinking can be encouraged, and product development can be shared and inspired is often easier said than done.

But for those of us working in front-end innovation, the challenge of coming up with fewer but bigger and better ideas in unceasing. New thinking is time-consuming and energy-intense, so we are always searching for ways to reduce idea attrition rates and more quickly pinpoint successful product launches that resonate better with consumers.

As with so much of the creative process, there are no hard and fast rules, but I do think our industry has settled on the classic brainstorming concept of idea generation, to the detriment of more successful methods.


We’ve all witnessed, or taken part in, the more random act of problem-solving that goes under the guise of brainstorming. A room full of people, each clasping their bundle of post-it notes and pens, flip charts at the ready before unleashing the voting for people’s favourite idea. Too often the nervous follow the lead of the senior team members, marking their dot against the same idea as their boss’s and a collective groupthink takes hold.

This is why I’m more interested in what I’d call ‘brainsteering’, rather than brainstorming. The advantage of brainsteering is that it applies the design thinking process to creative idea generation. Energy is invested upfront to ensure that the actual problem to be solved is crystal clear. Because too often people jump into the brainstorming stage without having clearly identified the problem that they are looking to storm.

With a clear problem definition and the appropriate inputs before the idea generation element begins, you’re more likely to succeed. It’s the philosophy of a slow start for a fast finish vs the jump straight to solutions stage. Clear criteria are applied to idea selection and idea identification. It doesn’t reduce creativity, but it does improve the rigour.

People often talk about the fuzzy front end of innovation, but this is wrong – it shouldn’t be fuzzy, it should be very clear and specific about the job that needs to be done. From that, a very tight brief can be written. The briefing is often where it goes wrong. We’ve all seen – or written – those briefs that are too ambiguous, too open and too general. Keeping it broad doesn’t help anyone; far better to invest in quality up-front thinking to ensure quality design outcomes. From a water-tight brief, the designers can hold the truth of the problem central through the whole development process, so all that upfront thinking and learning isn’t diluted as the work is carried out.

In addition, brainsteering means you avoid instigating a random voting system, instead, you look at accessing ideas to see if they are viable, feasible, desirable and sustainable through a rigorous idea selection process.

By using the simple of the framework of design thinking you merge human understanding – gained through quality insight – with science and technology solutions all started with quality problem definition. Following this structured process means better results are delivered.

There is a risk with the way brainstorming has evolved – in a bid to engender a fun ‘creative’ atmosphere to the process rooms have included multicoloured highlighters, bean bags, Haribos and other accoutrements. But innovation is really hard work – it doesn’t come from sugar-high lounging, it comes from rigour and discipline and the relentless pursuit of better solutions to difficult problems. Brilliant products and services, design solutions and new concepts do not come from throwing ideas at a wall and vainly hoping something will stick – or worse, simply voting for the same idea as your boss.

Insights and technology – applied in the design thinking framework of brainsteering – are imperative for the innovation journey. With quality human understanding and expertise of the technological landscape, you have the best opportunity to find the next big answer to a customer’s problem.