Designers referred to "real" brainstorms as scheduled meetings in conference rooms led by a facilitator.
As Table 1 indicates, IDEO brainstorms were used and talked about in ways that reflected and reinforced the attitude of wisdom, especially in asking others for help and experimenting.
Designers viewed brainstorms as one of the best ways to get help and give help to others because, compared with e-mails or brief conversations, richer information was exchanged and attention was focused narrowly on the problem.
Brainstorms called after the "kick-off" period are often admissions that the organizer has designed him- or herself "into a corner" and needs help, reflecting Sternberg's (1985) finding that wise people admit mistakes and believe they can learn from others.
In addition to being requests for help and creating a setting in which designers help one another, IDEO's brainstorms also reflect and reinforce a norm of experimentation.
IDEO brainstorms teach and remind designers to generate many ideas, develop a few in depth, make many changes in developed ideas, and reflect the belief that many bad ideas can lead to a few good ones.
The talking and listening during and after brainstorms takes time away from other tasks: Helping on other projects delays a designer's own projects, informal conversations after brainstorms are usually not billed to clients, and trying many prototypes consumes time and money.
Like meetings studied by anthropologists, brainstorms can be described as "prestige" or "status" auctions, in which people bid for status, and depending on how others respond, their status may go up or down (Schwartzman, 1986).
Table 1 summarizes the evidence that brainstorms are status auctions.
The more you do this the more people seek after you to be a guru in their brainstorms. It self-perpetuates.
Brainstorms at IDEO can be viewed as games in which the rules assure that the status auction flows rapidly and fairly.
Brainstorms often end with the facilitator asking, "Which ideas should we develop further?" Designers usually show consensus about which ideas were best and refer to ideas by the name of the designer who suggested it, so "winning bids" are often identified.
One informant asserted, "There are only 20 [out of 45 or so] designers who are really good at brainstorming and only 5 who are great." These reputations affect how many brainstorms designers are invited to and how many they turn down.
So another answer to the "effectiveness at what" question is that brainstorms create a social arena in which status auctions occur.
Clients were not only often impressed with the concepts, prototypes, and finished products that resulted from brainstorms, they were often impressed with the creativity displayed by IDEO designers and the fun everyone had.