Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here's How To Argue Productively

At Continuum, innovation’s secret sauce is deliberative discourse. Here’s how you do it.

Turns out that brainstorming—that go-to approach to generating new ideas since the 1940s—isn’t the golden ticket to innovation after all. Both Jonah Lehrer, in a recent article in The New Yorker, and Susan Cain, in her new book Quiet, have asserted as much. Science shows that brainstorms can activate a neurological fear of rejection and that groups are not necessarily more creative than individuals. Brainstorming can actually be detrimental to good ideas.

But the idea behind brainstorming is right. To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones. We need to work both collaboratively and individually. We also need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing. We need places where someone can throw out a thought, have it critiqued, and not feel so judged that they become defensive and shut down. Yet this creative process is not necessarily supported by the traditional tenets of brainstorming: group collaboration, all ideas held equal, nothing judged.

So if not from brainstorming, where do good ideas come from?

At Continuum, we use deliberative discourse—or what we fondly call "Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss." Deliberative discourse was originally articulated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication. Multiple positions and views are expressed with a shared understanding that everyone is focused on a common goal. There is no hierarchy. It’s not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to "win." Rather, it’s about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas.

So we argue. And discuss. And argue. A lot. But our process is far from freeform yelling. Here are five key rules of engagement that we’ve found to yield fruitful sessions and ultimately lead to meaningful ideas.


Breaking down hierarchy is critical for deliberative discourse. It’s essential to creating a space where everyone can truly contribute. My first week at Continuum, I joined a three-person team with one senior and one principal strategist. A recent graduate, I was one of the youngest members of the company. During our first session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, "You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day." He gave me permission to voice my opinion openly, regardless of my seniority. This breakdown of hierarchy creates a space where ideas can be invented— and challenged—without fear.


It’s widely evangelized that successful brainstorms rely on acceptance of all ideas and judgment of none. Many refer to the cardinal rule of improv saying "Yes, AND"—for building on others’ ideas. As a former actor, I’m a major proponent of "Yes AND."

But I’m also a fan of "no, BECAUSE." No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse. And that "because" should be grounded in real people other than ourselves.

We conduct ethnographic research to inform our intuition, so we can understand people’s needs, problems, and values. We go out dancing with a group of women in a small Chinese village; we work in a fry shack in the deep South; we sit in living rooms and listen to caregivers discuss looking after a parent with Alzheimer’s. This research informs our intuitive "guts"—giving us both inspiration for ideas and rationale to defend or critique them.

During ideation, we constantly refer back to people, asking one another if our ideas are solving a real need that people expressed or that we witnessed. This keeps us accountable to something other than our own opinions, and it means we can push back on colleagues’ ideas without getting personal.


We’ve all heard of T-shaped people and of multidisciplinary teams. This model works for us because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas. We curate teams to create diversity: Walk into a project room and you may find an artist-turned-strategist, a biologist-turned-product designer, and an English professor-turned-innovation guru hashing it out together. True to form, my background is in theater and anthropology.

On a recent project, I realized the best way to tackle a particular problem was to apply a text analysis tool that actors use with new scripts. I taught this framework to the team, and we used it to generate ideas. Another time, a team member with a background in Wall Street banking wrote an equation on the whiteboard. It was exactly the framework we needed to jumpstart our next session.

When we enter deliberative discourse, arguing and discussing and arguing and discussing, we each bring different ways of looking at the world and solving problems to the table.


Deliberative discourse is not just arguing for argument’s sake. Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal. We develop a statement of purpose at the outset of each project and post it on the door of our project room. Every day when we walk into the room, we’re entering into a liminal play space—call it a playing field. The statement of purpose establishes the rules: It reminds us that we are working together to move the ball down the field. As much as we may argue and disagree, anything that happens in the room counts toward our shared goal. This enables us to argue and discuss without hurting one another.


We work on projects ranging from global banking for the poor to the future of pizza and life-saving medical devices. Our work requires intensity, thoughtfulness, and rigor. But no matter the nature of the project, we keep it fun. It’s rare for an hour to pass without laughter erupting from a project room. Deliberative discourse is a form of play, and for play to yield great ideas, we have to take it seriously.

But we don’t brainstorm. We deliberate.

[Images: Kazarlenya, aboikis, and Jakgree via Shutterstock]

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  • Zharptitsa

    Brainstorming is great, if you're with cooperative folks not driven primarily by ego. In Susan Cain's book Quiet she points out that often brainstorming doesn't work with groups because of the fear of rejection, and that people come up with more and better ideas, often, during quiet and alone times of reflection.  I think a combo of both is better, meet to discuss the issue, separate to ponder, and the meet again to discuss. Just that added part in the middle, which often happens more by accident than design, can help. 

  • Good Square

    Now you know why Steve Jobs was innovator. There's a documentary on Steve Jobs interview which was recorded in 1995, which brings all these points home. Must see.

  • Nikol

    I love your first boss' remark about disagreeing with him once a day. I also stand by that rule and always had even as a student. It builds confidence in what you are saying and shows leadership even if your ideas aren't being used all the time. 

    Another favorite of mine is the first 10 ideas you come up with are probably terrible. Get them out of your head so the real good ideas can then surface. 

  • Brian

    I won't plug the book, but the Disney "Imagineers" have some great tools they use to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. 

  • John Mackay

    The problem as I see it is that brainstorming is more of a catch-all phrase and means different things to different people. 

    I would argue [grin] that argument or critique is an integral part of the brainstorming process that comes *after* everyones great ideas have found their way onto the board. 

    The problem with immediately critiquing an idea is that it moves the group's mental focus to critiquing instead of generating new ideas--it kills ideas! It favours assertive and often senior members of the group to bring their "position" or power into play and runs the risk of non-assertive members of the group deciding to sit on their ideas rather than face immediate and open critique in front of their peers. 

    I say, get everyone's ideas on the board first no matter how silly they sound, no if's but's or maybes because sometimes those silly sounding ideas help to spawn new ideas. Once you're satisfied that you've spawned all of your good ideas then and only then do you start to review them, critique them and argue their respective merits. And in the context of all the other ideas sitting on the board you'll probably find that just one or two ideas stand out to the whole group and the other ideas don't even need looking at. 

    But if you has started arguing ideas straight out of the pot so to speak that great idea may never have found its way on to the board.

  • Kyle McHattie

     Exactly. Brainstorming is about creativity. Arguing is about judgement. All this article does is talk about how these "experts" have changed the definition of brainstorming to mean something else to make themselves look important. Good ideas are fueled by creativity. Brainstorming is the group creative process and is very effective. The arguing and critiquing come after brainstorming.

  • David Stuart

    Ideation. What a terrible word to invoke creativity. It's a corporate word. A word that triggers a connotation of conference rooms and white boards and colored pens and forced moments of "fun," and "creativity." It's gag inducing.

    Here's an idea... no brainstorming required: Use the word imagination or creativity - which connote exactly what they mean - when attempting to be imaginative or creative.

    These 5 "rules," are so rudimentary as to be almost laughable. Focus on a common goal? Keep it fun? Brilliant. My first "rule," would be to disallow the use of the word ideation. The s econd would be to get out of the conference room.

    Most great ideas weren't generated in a square white box using flip charts and colored pens. They were generated in a place where the mind can truly wander over something and reflect.

  • Sara Farooqi

    We live in a really confrontation-averse, artificially polite society. Arguing and dialoguing is a lot messier and uncomfortable than the traditional brainstorming model.  A lot of people claim to appreciate different opinions, but in reality, not so much, and all too often, people are pushed back into their agreeable shells.

    I love what your boss said to you about how disagreeing with him at least once a day is a requirement of your job! You're actually rewarded for thinking differently. Discord is both normalized and formalized in your workplace. Hats off to Continuum for building that kind of culture. In actuality, it's much more inclusive than an environment where everyone operates under the guise of agreement. 


  • Michael Thomas

    Ive got an idea why doesent everyone stop trying unsucessfully to brainstorm and call in professional help an inventing consultant creator to produce top marketable special order patented new product ideas and then partnership with him for a reasonable % of profits. Its unfair to employees to expect them to produce marketable ideas for the company then pay them nothing but wages.  

  • Steve

     Please call Michael Thomas on ...........................if you do not mind programmes based on bad spelling, 'doesent' and total lack of puncuation.

  • fustian

    So - you know at a consulting, design, marketing firm - your wages are in exchange for marketable ideas.  But sure, your idea is better.  I'll hire you, pay you NOTHING and give you 0.01% of EBITA once the product you come up with is commercialized.  Deal?

  • Dr.K

    'But we don’t brainstorm. We deliberate.'

    Maybe... let me start by AGREEING WITH YOU, Daniel, because I've been to four 'brainstorming' sessions in the decade, and all 4 were head-down, laptops running, sit-down, wait-for-DearLeader to speak affairs... briefly, NOT brainstorming at all...

    Which invites my disagreement with you, Sir, in that the 'deliberation' you outline has been (and continues to be) the positive, creative, constructive power behind the ACTUAL brainstorming sessions I've attended (and conducted)...

    'The spark of truth' coming from 'the clash of differing opinions'... the fun of smashing my idea to bits with others, and then gleefully rearrange SOME of the pieces into something that lives, walks, WORKS...  That's brainstorming, deliberately! :D

  • jmco

    In design, its called a crit. It happens thousands of times a day in studios and firms around the world, before a client even sees a thing.
    AKA: refinement.

  • Alan Crabb

    Unfortunately there is a very part of us that wants to conform and is very sensitive to criticism. Dr Steve Peter's call this our chimp mind. This mind is always on the look out for danger and it is more powerful and quicker than our rational, or as Dr Peter's calls it, our human mind. 
    Brainstorming or any other group decision making is unsuccessful in producing creative ideas for this reason.

  • Cedricj

    Conflict, as you say, can generate innovation. 

    But the conflict cannot be personal, political, or vindictive.

    It must be about ideas  where the person does not have an ego investment in being right or getting their way.cedricj.wordpress.comInspiring leaders to inspire others

  • gbacoder

    Having said what I said, those tips are still useful."No b/c" does not imply someone is wrong as much as "no". It leaves it open to debate, on whether the b/c is correct. Just "no" closes things off, and that person's ego is attached to it as well. And of course have fun. And be clear of the goal. Sometimes spin off ideas can be BETTER though, so if they do come up, write them down for later, then re-focus! But overall yes, as brainstorming goes it will pay to be reminded of these tips at the start of each session. Social rules / guidelines can make all the difference. 

  • gbacoder

    I'm not yet convinced that brainstorming can work, but worth a try. Studies show that individuals create the best ideas while alone. I do wonder that this is hard for US culture in particular to accept. It is more understood in Europe I feel. Same with the notion that leaders cannot be introverts. Yet we see many great examples, esp. from Japan.

  • Karridine

     Sir, the productive brainstorming I've experienced was done with several distinctive features: Very Visual (whiteboards around the room, EVERYBODY having several colored pens/markers,); Universal Participation Mandatory- Everybody adds, criticizes, develops, leaves marks on the huge sheets of butcher-paper around the room... and ALL contributions are appreciated; NO LAPTOPS in session; NO Chairs or stools... yes, a focused, high-energy, GUIDED session that all know will NOT drag on, will NOT be long, heavy minutes of waiting for all the people absorbed with their laptops to 'agree' with Dear Leader...

  • Daphinytsno

    I loved the 5 steps ........ I will be using them whenever and however I can ...... Thanks .........