You Need to Rethink How You Brainstorm

By Yvonne Milosevic

You can find tons of advice on the interwebs about how to improve your team’s brainstorming sessions. But until recently, we’ve missed one fundamental truth about how we tap into our most creative solutions. People often think their best ideas come early during a brainstorm, but researchers have now discovered the opposite is true.

Kellogg professor Loran Nordgren and Kellogg Ph.D. alumnus Brian Lucas ran several studies that uncovered a widespread, persistent belief that our creativity plummets with time—a phenomenon they dubbed the “creative cliff illusion.” This flawed outlook is self-defeating, they say, because the more we believe it, the fewer creative solutions we generate.

When we begin to brainstorm, the ideas fly fast and furious. While this seems to imply that we’re most creative when at our freshest, the mistake here is conflating productivity with creativity. Our first ideas come quickly because they’re based primarily on memories that our lazy brains can recall with little effort.   


As we spend more time developing novel ideas, the effort it takes to get our wheels turning becomes uncomfortable. We think this sluggishness means that the proverbial well is drying up. But, in fact, it signals that we need to push a little harder.

“If you’re struggling, keep going,” says Nordgren. “Our best ideas are there. They just require more digging.”

It’s worth noting that, during Nordgren and Lucas’s studies, people who regularly used their creative skills at work were less likely to fall prey to the creative cliff illusion. In addition, this group believed their creativity levels remained constant throughout the brainstorming process. While still inaccurate, that was closer to what the researchers found.   

Don’t End the Brainstorm Too Early

If we hope to reach those best ideas eventually, persistence is key. We must push past that urge to stop when the idea generation slows to a trickle. Nordgren, who’s currently at work on a book, insists on practicing what he preaches. “These ideas are influential in those moments,” he says. “I’ll think, ‘this is a pretty good example, but is there a better one?’ It’s a nudge to keep going beyond what my intuition tells me to.”


To study brainstorming from another angle, check out This Popular Tactic Won’t Boost Your Creativity. And for more thoughts on creativity and how to boost your own, don’t miss this post: Want to Become More Creative? Head to Finland.