Brainstorming really is dumb

The dreaded memo has come around again – management has called another brainstorming session. They are getting people together to solve a problem or, more commonly, to discuss future trends or challenges for the organization.

You cringe when remembering the previous awkward sessions, when too many flip charts were filled with half-baked “ideas.” But the managers seemed to be pleased that “people were involved.” If you are an introvert, you remember the sessions as downright painful. And those flip charts that were so important that day – they were soon forgotten as people returned to their usual work.

But everyone says they had a fun day, so we know the next memo will come around soon enough.

Brainstorming has been described as the placebo in the management medicine kit – everyone believes that it works despite clear evidence that it does not. A recent Fast Company article has declared, “brainstorming is dumb.” Brainstorming continues to be popular even though major studies have shown that positive results are rare, at best, and viable alternatives are readily available.

Getting people together to propose new ideas seems, on the surface, like a good thing. However, as the Fast Company article describes, “just because you throw people together doesn’t mean wonderful things happen.” Others have been more critical, describing brainstorming as nothing more than executive entertainment.

So, what does the research say, and what are the alternatives to brainstorming?

To dig into this, we first have to review where brainstorming came from, and how it was supposed to work. Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, made brainstorming popular — most notably in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Brainstorming was described as a wonderful group creativity technique that could be used to generate great ideas or solve hard problems. The term came from the idea of storming a problem like a group of commandos, with each “stormer” attacking the same objective.

Osborn was quite detailed in describing how brainstorming should be done. He established instructions for brainstorming sessions, many of which are now ignored. Osborn said that brainstorming sessions should:

  • Involve groups of about 12 people, or perhaps fewer
  • Avoid judging ideas
  • Strive for idea quantity, because quantity leads to quality
  • Promote divergent thinking and wild ideas
  • Welcome combinations and improvements on ideas

Perhaps the most overlooked principles in Osborn’s technique were:

  • Carefully choose the topic to be amenable to idea generation and as specific as possible
  • Provide pre-session training on the technique
  • Provide background information and orientation to the problem before the session

Osborn claimed that brainstorming, conducted with these principles, produced 44% more ideas than people working alone. With this evidence, and the attractiveness of the sessions, brainstorming took off and was widely adopted in many organizations.

Almost immediately, there were criticisms. Soon after Osborn’s book was published, researchers reported that, contrary to the doctrine, individuals often performed better than groups. Promoters of the technique argued, however, that those studies used questionable designs — one widely quoted study compared people working in groups versus individuals working alone, but all participants received brainstorming instructions. So, they argued, this was not a fair test of the technique.

Questions about how to properly test brainstorming remain today. Should we compare?

  • Brainstorming groups vs. brainstorming individuals
  • Brainstorming groups vs. other groups
  • Number of ideas vs. quality of ideas
  • Variety of ideas vs. novelty of ideas
  • With facilitator vs. without facilitator
  • Pre-existing groups vs. random groups

With so many open questions, it should be no surprise that studies that test brainstorming have come up with inconsistent results. But very often, the results are negative, suggesting that brainstorming may not actually work as advertised.

A review by Scott Isaksen examined 90 different studies and found that brainstorming was often not effective. The review also showed that many of the principles proposed by Osborn were not followed in the studies, leading to questions about the validity of the tests. Other studies have often found that individuals produced more, better ideas. Researchers have even proposed that working in groups could actually inhibit the creative process, perhaps due to nervousness, free riding by some participants, and “group think” where teams fixate on a few early ideas.

With the tests of brainstorming showing mixed results, people have started to consider modifications to the original Osborn principles. Some have argued that the lack of criticism, something that Osborn thought was crucial for allowing creativity to flourish, might actually be a problem. Their studies showed that adding debate and criticism to the brainstorming sessions actually led to more ideas.

Other people have started to question the role of the group interaction. With recent tech developments, researchers have started to examine electronic brainstorming, where people work at computers or online. When online, people can work anonymously while still participating in groups, perhaps using a shared editing space or chat service. Working electronically might reduce some of the inhibiting social factors of group work, such as nervousness or introverted personalities.

Another derivation of the original brainstorming technique is brainwriting where, instead of sharing ideas out loud in a group session, people write their ideas down and pass them around. Others can read the ideas and perhaps build on them, while continuing to work on their own ideas. The Fast Company article suggests that brainwriting, done best when writing both alone and in groups, can be a lot less dumb.

So, when the memo comes around again, propose an alternative? Try brainwriting or electronic brainstorming. Groups should exchange ideas when working on a problem, but they should also work alone, probably before they work in groups. The 1950s-style, awkwardly social, too-man-flip-chart sessions are not the best way to come up with good ideas.

Suggested Reading

Brainstorming Is Dumb. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3062292/evidence/brainstorming-is-dumb

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink

10 New Rules For Brainstorming Without Alienating Introverts. https://www.fastcompany.com/3067769/the-science-of-work/10-new-rules-for-brainstorming-without-alienating-introverts

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