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The origin of brainstorming

The 31-year-old Osborn founded the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn in 1919 together with a number of partners. Inc, BBDO. The company grew into a thriving advertising agency until 1939, when it began to show a decline in profits and lost one of its key partners, Roy Durstine. Durstine started an independent advertising agency. It was in such desperate times that Alex Osborn made his passion for creative thinking more central to looking for ways to encourage his employees to "invent", a term he used for creative idea generation.

In 1942, Osborn introduced this concept of "thinking up" in his work How to Think Up. This was a precursor to the brainstorming process that he later created. Osborn (1979) attributed the origin of the process to Hindu teachers in India, who have used the method of Prai (outside yourself) Barshana (question) for over 400 years. During such a session, there is no discussion or criticism; evaluation of ideas takes place at later meetings of the same group. The process worked very well for the company. In 1951, BBDO became the second largest advertising agency in the United States with sales of over $100 million. In 1953, Alex Osborn introduced the brainstorming process with illustrations of BBDO's success stories in Applied Imagination.

Osborn suggested that the participants in the group should have varying amounts of experience in the task at hand, but he discouraged mixing participants from different hierarchical levels of the company within a brainstorming group. Other details suggested by Osborn were that participants should be adequately informed in advance of the problem that would be addressed during the brainstorming session so that the creative focus would be on the specific problem. Also, the participants would be trained in brainstorming rules and techniques by the facilitator prior to the session. Osborn made it clear that the facilitator of the brainstorming session played a central role in the process.

A typical brainstorming session in BBDO would be conducted in a bright yellow room to keep the atmosphere warm and not intimidating. Even the arrangement of furniture in the room was strategic to create a relaxed atmosphere to enhance creativity. The tables were generously provided with pencils and notebooks, tools that could be used to be creative. A stenographer would record all the ideas that were put forward. After the brainstorming session, the stenographic record of the ideas would be sorted and reviewed by someone with authority within the agency.

BBDO produced a total of 34,000 new ideas in 1956, through 47 continuous brainstorming groups with 401 brainstorming sessions. Of these, 2,000 ideas were of superior quality and worthy of investment. These 2000 ideas might not have existed if the ideation process in BBDO had not continued.

Now the word brainstorming is used (and abused) in a wide range of contexts. In 1998, Scott Isaksen of the Creativity Research Unit of the Creative Problem Solving group in Buffalo, New York examined a review of 50 studies on brainstorming. The studies Isaksen examined were among the most prominent from 1958 to 1988. Their review showed that brainstorming was probably the most studied creative thinking tool, and yet the least understood. The review of the studies also showed that the researchers did not adhere to Osborn's original brainstorming model and pointed out a number of ways in which brainstorming research could be revisited to assess the effectiveness of Alex Osborn's brainstorming model.


Osborn, A.F. (1948). Your creative power. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Osborn, A.F. (1979). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving (3rd. rev. ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's. [Orig. ed. 1953.]


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