Brainstorming versus Braincalming

Brainstorming versus BraincalmingIf you work in a big organization, small business, freelance, or eat cheese, there’s a good chance you’ve participated in at least a few brainstorming sessions in your life.

You’ve noodled, conjured, envisioned, ideated, piggybacked, and endured overly enthusiastic facilitators doing their facilitator thing.

You may have even gotten some results. Hallelujah!

But even the best run brainstorming sessions are based on a questionable assumption — that the origination of powerful, new ideas depend on the facilitated interaction between people.

You know, the “two heads are better than one” syndrome.

I’d like to propose an alternative for the moment: “two heads are better than one sometimes.”

For the moment, I invite you to consider the possibility that the origination of great, new ideas doesn’t take place in the storm, but in the calm before the storm… or the calm after the storm… or sometimes, even in the eye of the storm itself.

Every wonder why so many people get their best ideas during “down time” — the time just before they go to sleep… or just after waking… or in dreams… or in the shower… or in the car on the way home from work?

Those aren’t brainstorming sessions, folks. Those are braincalming sessions. Incubation time.

Those are time outs for the hyperactive child genius within us who is always on the go.

Methinks, in today’s over-caffeinated, late-for-a-very-important-date business world, we have become addicted to the storm.

“Look busy,” is the mantra, not “look deeply.”

We want high winds. We want lightning. We want proof that something is happening, even if the proof turns out to be nothing more than sound and fury.

High winds do not last all morning. Sometimes the storm has to stop.

That’s why some of your co-workers like to show up early at the office before anyone else has arrived. For many of us, that’s the only time we have to think.

“The best thinking has been done in solitude,” said Thomas Edison. “The worst has been done in turmoil.”

I’m not suggesting that you stop brainstorming (um… that’s 20% of our business). All I’m suggesting is you balance it out with some braincalming. The combination of the two can be very, very powerful.


  1. In the middle of your next brainstorming, session, restate the challenge — then ask everyone to sit, in silence, for five minutes, and write down whatever ideas come to mind. (Be ready for the inevitable joking that will immediately follow your request). Then, after five minutes are up, go “round robin” and ask everyone to state their most compelling idea.
  2. Ask each member of your team to think about a specific business-related challenge before they go to bed tonight and write down their ideas when they wake up. Then, gather your team together for a morning coffee and see what you’ve got.
  3. Conduct your next brainstorming session in total silence. Begin by having the brainstorming challenge written on a big flip chart before people enter the room. Then, after some initial schmoozing, explain the “silence ground rule” and the process: People will write their ideas on post-its or flip charts. Their co-workers, also in silence, will read what gets posted and piggyback. Nobody talks.

It’s your decision, at the end of the idea generating time, if you want the debrief to be spoken — or if you want people to come back the next day for a verbal debrief.

“Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Mitch DitkoffMitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.

Mitch Ditkoff




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No Comments

  1. Greg Waddell on March 16, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Love this idea! I will definitely try it. I would, however, disagree on one small point and that is that the purpose of brainstorming is to come up with original ideas. My understanding of brainstorming is that its purpose is to generate a multiplicity of alternatives. The difference is subtle but I think important. For it to work, it’s essential that ground rules be laid down one of which is that nobody is allowed to evaluate another’s idea. Evaluation is left for a different kind of meeting. I still love the idea of a silent brainstorming session.

    • Mitch Ditkoff on December 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Good point, Rick. Multiplicity of Alternatives is a good thing and also a great name for your new band. Keep up the good work.

  2. John P on March 30, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    thanks for your article Mitch,

    It goes back to the origins of Eureka and the bathtime moment … i like how you propose both – i.e. that you can have brain calming in amongst a brainstorming session. Assuming you are proposing that you can use brain calming both for itself and also as a deliberate technique / strategy / ‘way of generating ideas’ like others such as random input, SCAMPER, etc..

    • Mitch Ditkoff on December 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm

      John. Yes. Both. It’s almost never either/or. In fact, all the great principals in the world have it’s equal and opposite polarity: night/day, yin/yang, up/down, men/women, solitude/community. Same with ideation techniques and creativity catalysts.

  3. John P on March 30, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    ps – your Waldo Emerson quote is similar to his other one:
    “I enjoy the silence in a church more than any sermon.”

  4. Graham Douglas on December 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Good point well made. Braincalming or what I call “Exploration” is an essential technique in my widely applicable Integrative Problem Solving Process which is outlined on my website.

    If you would like to evaluate and comment on the Integrative Problem Solving Process, I offer it to you at no charge in December 2012.

  5. Paula Morand on December 4, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Great blog post and from a visionary who has numerous ideas daily, I agree that silence and rumination often produces even better results.

  6. Vicki on December 4, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    The Introverts in your organization will thank you.

    • Mitch Ditkoff on December 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Vicki: What you just said is huge. Introverts don’t usually like brainstorming all that much. Other, more verbal people step up and run the show. The introverts rarely get the stage. Their either withhold their brilliance or deliver it in such a subtle way that everyone else tramples all over it. Braincalming gives introverts a safe space in which to shine and it also quiets down the rampaging mind of the extroverts to allow for more of a listening context. Faster and louder isn’t always better, despite the way TV commercials and political campaigns are fun. There’s a “slow food” movement afoot and gaining traction. Methinks, there needs to be a “slow brainstorming” movement to counterbalance all the bluster, showmanship, and speed masquerading as brilliance.

  7. Praveen Udupa on December 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    I call what I do “brainstorming” but basically followed the same set of rules for braincalming:
    – I normally begin by carefully choosing my stakeholder team, then get them together into a room where “speak-when-it-is -your-turn” and “speak-one-at-a-time” are the basic mantras.
    – I clarify the objective of the brainstorming exercise. Then everyone is silent for a defined period of time generating their ideas.
    – Then there is another defined time period where every shares their ideas and no one judges them. The only person allowed to talk other then the stakeholder is the facilitator, and that too to understand the idea correctly in order to document on the whiteboard
    – Then follow the yada-yada steps of brainstorming

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