While research and experience has shown group brainstorming activity can be productive, creative and a team-building process, there is substantial evidence which also shows brainstorming has serious flaws that inhibit those same outcomes.
What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a widely used technique for groups to develop varied and fresh perspectives on an issue, problem or project, and it is frequently taught and used by team leaders and consultants working with groups.
As it turns out, brainstorming did come about during the actual “Mad Men” era. Pioneered by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the late 1940s, it served as a way to generate a large quantity of ideas in an environment where everyone’s ideas held the same weight, which definitely wasn’t always the case back then. By democratizing idea generation, Osborn surmised, the best ones would rise to the top. In the late nineteen-forties, Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., decided to write a book in which he shared his creative secrets. At the time, B.B.D.O. was widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. Born in 1888, Osborn had spent much of his career in Buffalo, where he started out working in newspapers, and his life at B.B.D.O. began when he teamed up with another young adman he’d met volunteering for the United War Work Campaign. By the forties, he was one of the industry’s grand old men, ready to pass on the lessons he’d learned.
His book Your Creative Power was published in 1948. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best-seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output. Such a mental boost would spur career success—“To get your foot in the door, your imagination can be an open-sesame”—and also make the reader a much happier person. “The more you rub your creative lamp, the more alive you feel,” he wrote.
Your Creative Power was filled with tricks and strategies, such as always carrying a notebook, to be ready when inspiration struck. But Osborn’s most celebrated idea was the one discussed in Chapter 33, “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” For Osborn, brainstorming was central to B.B.D.O.’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.
The book outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The most important of these, Osborn said—the thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity—was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” he wrote. “Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.” Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.
Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became an influential business guru, writing such best-sellers as Wake Up Your Mind and The Gold Mine Between Your Ears. His followup book to Your Creative Power, which expanded the idea of brainstorming was Applied Imagination, published in 1962. Osborn and his associates conducted extensive research using brainstorming techniques. In most situations, they reported, brainstorming tended to be up to 44% more effective than traditional problem-solving methods.
And it has given rise to detailed pedagogical doctrines, such as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which is frequently employed by business consultants. When people want to extract the best ideas from a group, they still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism and encouraging the most “freewheeling” associations. At the design firm ideo, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is “practically a religion,” according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.”
The Elements of Brainstorming
Osborn set the following five rules for his brainstorming technique:
- Criticism is ruled out. Both positive and negative evaluation of ideas must be withheld during the brainstorming process.
- “Free-wheeling” is encouraged. The wilder the idea, the better. It is much easier to tame down than to think up an idea.
- Quantity is encouraged. The greater the number the greater the likelihood that several ideas will be workable.
- Combinations of ideas are encouraged. The participants may combine two or more stated ideas in still another idea.
- “Hitchhiking” is encouraged. This involves suggesting an idea similar to, or triggered by, someone else’s idea.
The process, which should be informal and unstructured, is based on two old psychological premises. First, that the mere presence of others can have motivating effects on an individual’s performance. Second, that quantity (eventually) leads to quality.
Promoters and users of brainstorming also suggest: Groups using the brainstorming process usually set a short time limit for the session During this conception period, one or two people may be asked to serve as recorders of the ideas. If two people are recording ideas, they can take turns recording to increase the efficiency of collecting the suggestions that have been made. A chalkboard, piece of paper, or an overhead projector may be used as means of recording the ideas. One important aspect of brainstorming that should be remembered is that a brainstorming session is a true verbal free-for-all. In general, brainstorming groups with more than five people are difficult to manage. In groups larger than this, several people often do not get a chance to express their ideas. Leadership in a brainstorming group generally is not necessary, although at times a “regulator” may be necessary in groups just learning the brainstorming technique. It is important that the regulator should try to help remind the members of the group of the rules that must be followed in order for the session to be productive. After the brainstorming session, the solution(s) or criteria advanced then can be evaluated. The evaluation stage may follow immediately after the brainstorming stage. In some instances, it may be beneficial to have a waiting period before beginning the evaluation.
One major advantage of brainstorming is the enormous number of ideas that are generated from the technique. By having an open and free session, everyone can engage in the creation of ideas. This kind of atmosphere is not the usual “formal” situation, which often cramps people of their creativity. People feel good about themselves and the idea that they can contribute to the session. The cost and time of brainstorming is also another important factor. It is a relatively inexpensive technique that takes only a moderate amount of time to engage in.
Criticisms and Problems with Brainstorming–Research
- A study by researchers at Texas A&M University, and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, shows that brainstorming may not be the best strategy to generate unique and varied ideas. The researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, leading eventually to a conformity of ideas. Lead researcher Nicholas Kohn explains, “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative.” The researchers used AOL Instant Messenger as their electronic discussion format when conducting the experiments, which included groups of two, three, and four subjects.
- Richard Wiseman burst more than a few bubbles with his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot which exposed flaws in many of the beliefs we take for granted, such as the one about brainstorming being the being the best way to come up with great ideas: “Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressure others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity.” He goes on to say that “people are more creative away from the crowd. It is a universal phenomenon emerging in work across the world, including America, India, Thailand and Japan. In short – for seventy years, people have been using brainstorming to stifle–not stimulate their creative juices.”
- Generally, we try group brainstorming when we want to create a lot of unfiltered ideas. We’re hoping the old adage of “many heads are better than one” gets us better ideas than if we all tackled the task independently.The problem? Many heads in the same room doesn’t help us come up with better ideas at all. In fact, a meta-analysis of 241 different studies involving 24,000 subjects in the Psychological Bulletin concluded that the presence of others barely had any effect on task performance at all, and definitely not in the way Osborn would have hoped. Overall, the presence of others “increases the speed of simple task performance and decreases the speed of complex task performance,” suggesting that higher-level tasks like creative thought would actually be impaired.
- Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, summarized much of the research on brainstorming. She concluded that individuals are better at divergent thinking–thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas–whereas groups are better at convergent thinking–selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.
- Psychology professor Art Markman from the University of Texas at Austin argues, based on his research: “It’s not that people working together are never good. It’s just that the technique that Osborn developed was lousy.”
- In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told,“Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible. The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven. Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict. According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
- A study entitled “Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming,” by researchers Nichols Kohn and Steven Smith at Texas A&M University, and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, shows that brainstorming may not be the best strategy to generate unique and varied ideas. The researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, leading eventually to a conformity of ideas. Lead researcher Nicholas Kohn explains, “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative.”
- A meta-analytic review of more than 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written. Another problem is that teams tend to give up when they notice that their efforts aren’t producing very much.
- In a summary on brainstorming research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Paulus and Vincent R. Brown (Hofstra University) explain that “much literature on group brainstorming has found it to be less effective than individual brainstorming.”
- No idea generated, the brainstorming rules insist, is a bad idea. But what if that itself is a bad idea? In an article published in Nature Human Behaviour, the organizational psychologist David Burkus argues that brainstorming sessions stifle, rather than unleash, solutions. Burkus draws on research published more than a decade ago to help make his case that immediate criticism helps, rather than hinders, creativity.
- Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In fact, the very first empirical test of Osborn’s technique, which was performed at Yale University in 1958, soundly refuted the premise. The experiment was simple: Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to carefully follow Osborn’s brainstorming guidelines. As a control sample, forty-eight students working by themselves were each given the same puzzles. The results were unexpected. Not only did the solo students come up with twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups but their solutions were deemed more “feasible” and “effective” by a panel of judges. In other words, brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group. Instead, the technique suppressed it, making each individual less creative.
- According to organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham, studies have shown that performance gets worse as a group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ides compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, writing in the Harvard Business Review argues there are several explanations as to why brainstorming doesn’t work:
- Social loafing: There’s a tendency – also known as free riding – for people to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than alone. As with the bystander effect, we feel less propelled to do something when we know other people might do it.
- Social anxiety: People worry about other team members’ views of their ideas. This is also referred to as evaluation apprehension. The theory of evaluation apprehension suggests that group settings can impair our performance over the fear of being judged.
- Similarly, when team members perceive that others have more expertise, their performance declines. This is especially problematic for introverted and less confident individuals.
- Regression to the mean: This is the process of downward adjustment whereby the most talented group members end up matching the performance of their less talented counterparts. This effect is well known in sports – if you practice with someone less competent than you, your competence level declines and you sink to the mediocrity of your opponent.
- Production blocking: No matter how large the group, individuals can only express a single idea at one time if they want other group members to hear them. Studies have found that the number of suggestions plateaus with more than six or seven group members, and that the number of ideas per person declines as group size increases.The turn-based structure of brainstorming rewards the ideas that get up on the whiteboard the fastest (a cognitive bias called “anchoring”). Once a few ideas have been proposed, those ideas percolate longer in front of the group and are given (maybe undue) weight over later ideas. This unfairly punishes introverted team members who may take longer to volunteer ideas. People also tend to automatically withhold ideas if they perceive others in the group as being more experienced. So unless you have a group of peers who think they’re all at the same experience level, perception of status could work against your group.
- “Groupthink” develops. Generally, people want to avoid conflict and they want to help by agreeing with someone else’s idea, even if we have better ideas of our own. Extroverts and dominating people tend to talk first and loudest and control the conversation, and then others tend to follow along.
- Criticism and civil debate are stifled. One of the rules of brainstorming is that the sessions are uncritical environments where anyone can have an idea without the worry of feeling stupid. This is intended to enhance creativity and let the introverts or shy people participate more. But the problem is that idea that clearly lacks merit or substance are artificially entertained.
- Usually, a brainstorming session is timed, and the group is expected to come up with ideas that will be adopted in a relatively short time frame, or even in a competitive environment when groups are compared. In research published in theHarvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, showed that pressure is almost always terrible for creative thinking.
What to Do Instead of Brainstorming
A number of alternative creative idea generation and problem solving processes have been developed as an alternative to brainstorming. Here’s a brief description of some of them:
- “Brainwriting” refers to a group method that emphasizes the silent generation of ideas in writing. In interacting brainwriting groups, each person’s ideas are shared and used by the other members to invigorate new ideas. There are four rules that are calculated to group towards this goal are: (1) all evaluation and criticism of ideas is forbidden;(2) wild and offbeat ideas are encouraged; (3) quantity, not quality, of ideas is the goal; (4) new combinations of ideas are sought. Groups that are not experienced in using the brainstorming technique may find they have problems with it. One problem comes from the natural tendency for people to support their own ideas. A person who presents an idea wants to elaborate on it. Someone who thinks that his or her idea is better wants to tell the group why it is better. A group that is using brainstorming for the first time should have a leader who can lessen the group members’ desires to evaluate and elaborate. Groups may also come to a standing point after they have a list of several items. At this point a leader should step in and ask, “Can we think of a few more ideas?” This will encourage the group to continue. Another problem is the tendency for some members to suppress the flow of ideas through their nonverbal communication. For example, a frown of disapproval will discourage the contributor’s willingness to continue providing ideas.
- Buzz sessions. The buzz session, or Phillips 66 technique, links the gap between public and private discussions. This technique is used most often during private discussions, but it can also include the participation of the audience. In fact, the buzz group method was first associated with J.D. Phillips (1948), who divided large audiences into groups of six for six minutes to perform some task. Groups were asked to discuss an aspect of a problem, to formulate questions, or to brainstorm an idea. Buzz sessions are used regularly but are not limited by size or time constraints. The buzz group method is simply the process of dividing a group into small units for the means of discussion. After the smaller groups are formed, the leader or mediator assigns a task for the time allowed. Once the time is up, a spokesperson for each group reports its results to the larger group.
- Quality circles. In recent years, quality circles have been used increasingly as a private discussion group alternative. The were originally used in Japanese businesses, but quality circles are now being implemented by businesses in the USA. Quality circles are probably the clearest example of the participative management group. The theory is that the employees are in the best position to know about work problems, and when they are involved in decision making, they will be more committed to the outcome. The key to quality circles is the willingness of the employees to volunteer to become involved in the technique. Membership does change over time, but employees are involved for a longer period of time than other techniques. Quality circles consist of six to eight employees who meet voluntarily on a regular basis to generate ideas and discuss work-related problems. They meet during business hours and usually in a room away from the regular work area. This process consists of defining problems, collecting information and technical data, seeking ways to improve work methods, and developing a proposal (using basic problem-solving techniques). These groups then present ideas and solutions to management for approval and monitor the implementation process.
- Nominal group technique (NGT)is a procedure that combines both features of brainstorming and brainwriting to produce a highly effective group decision-making process. This procedure has been labelled nominal group because it is not necessary for the group to engage in the type of interaction that is considered important for groups. The NGT process involves the following six basic steps: (1) silent generation of ideas in writing; (2) recording of ideas; (3) discussion for clarification; (4) preliminary vote on item importance; (5) discussion of the preliminary vote; (6) final vote.
- Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique. Direct your team to put on each of the following hats to analyze the situation:White hat – look at the facts themselves, gather as much data as possible; Yellow hat – look at the positives, value and benefits; Black hat – look at the negatives, difficulties and dangers ;Red hat – use feelings, hunches and intuition; Green hat – use creative approaches to consider new concepts and alternatives; Blue hat – facilitate the meeting, oversee the brainstorming process, and review the ideas generated. This hat is typically worn by the group leader, while the other hats can be delegated to particular team members, or shared.
- “Brainswarming.” Cognitive psychologist Tony McCaffrey proposes another, cooperative alternative. McCaffrey suggests an approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. Brainswarming begins by placing a goal or problem at the top of a whiteboard, then listing the resources available to meet these problems at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end. McCaffrey has found that natural “top-down” thinkers will begin refining the goal, while “bottom-up” thinkers will either add more resources or analyze how resources can be used to solve problems. The magic happens in the middle, where these two approaches connect. Rather than brainstorm with the traditional “no criticism, every idea is worthy” rule, encourage debate. It isn’t pretty or polite, but team members engage more with their colleagues’ ideas. They often come up with more thoughts–many of them unpredictable and original–after facing conflicts (the conclusions of a study by U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Charlan Nemeth).
- Mixed repeat collaborators and new talent in the group.Take a cue from the most successful Broadway musicals (Lehrer points to empirical evidence conducted byBrian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University), which tend to have a mix of repeat collaborators and new talent on their creative teams, rather than closed circles of long-time co-workers, or all-new groups who aren’t familiar with each other.
- Collaborate physically near others to promote better group ideas. The ideal distance? Thirty-two feet. This is based on research by Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac Kohane, who used the numbers of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers as a metric. Those groups with the most citations for their collaborative papers were working within 32 feet of one another. Those with the least were at least a half a mile apart. Force teams into chance encounters in the workplace, via architecture. Researcher Jonah Lehrer cites Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs: Jobs guided the design of Pixar’s headquarters to offer an atrium that housed the only bathrooms in the building (later, more were added)–thus increasing the odds that writers and programmers would discuss cross-disciplinary ideas, even during their breaks.
- Use the 6-3-5 method. In the 6-3-5 method, six people sit around a table and write down three ideas. They pass their stack of ideas to the person on their right, who builds on them. This passing is done five times, until everyone has had the chance to build on each of the ideas. Afterward, the group can get together to evaluate the ideas generated.
If You Absolutely Are Committed to Brainstorming, Do the Following:
Does this mean we need to scrap the practice of brainstorming altogether? I would say no. still believe there’s a lot of value in taking a collaborative approach. But there are a few ground rules to follow to make sure brainstorming sessions are actually effective:
- Provide strong leadership and a framework to follow.Keeping it free-flowing and without rules might sound good, but that is what allows the loudest voices in the room to hold court and squeeze out those who are shy, that may have brilliant ideas which never get heard. (For excellent examples of this principle at work, watch any episode of The Celebrity Apprentice).
- Give everyone time to themselves to think, and then come together with ideas to share.Introverts typically need time alone to get their creative juices flowing, and given the chance, they often come up with amazing solutions on their own (whereas extroverts may actually be more creative by feeding on the energy of a group).
- Make it mandatory for everyone to contribute ideas. There shouldn’t be any effort to shoot down ideas initially–create a safe space to share before everyone starts thinking critically.
- Make it a rule that if you are going to shoot down an idea, you need to come up with an alternative.
- Give your group the space to think through ideas independently.People operate at peak creativity when they’re alone—safe from unconscious bias, group dynamics, and potential interruptions. So if you’re looking for the highest-quality ideas, let people come up with those ideas in solitude. Whether that means having people submit ideas through an online form generator or in writing (or perhaps a Trello brainstorming board), make sure the initial brainstorm phase allows people to use their brainpower.
- Someone needs to be “the decider.”Brainstorming isn’t a democracy, even though you’d like everyone’s ideas to be taken into account.You need a facilitator, at a minimum, to make sure the group session doesn’t go off topic or end up with a couple people dominating the conversation.But beyond that, you need someone who will be ultimately responsible for picking the best idea, and this shouldn’t be done by acclamation. “Best idea” will mean different things to different people, but ultimately one person’s opinion should count for more.
- Structure your process.Come up with a structure for your brainstorming and inform people beforehand. Structure, somewhat counter-intuitively, actually promotes creativity.By forcing people to think along the same general outlines, you stop them wasting brain power exploring way beyond the creative pasture where you want them to graze. That means they can dig deeper in that smaller plot for those nuggets of creative gold.Being forewarned of the structure (and the length of any meetings involved) helps the team prepare for what’s next, instead of worrying that they’ll be stuck in the room forever. Jay Acunzo of NextView offers an excellent brainstorming structure that encourages individual expression but also takes advantage of group creativity.
- Pay attention to group dynamics.Be conscious of all the dynamics at play in your group, and be on the lookout for any behaviors that might be holding the group back. Actively working on your team’s emotional intelligence will help to facilitate more uninhibited creativity. Your structure should build in opportunities for everyone to contribute, and a facilitator should be in charge of the meeting, including deciding who gets to speak next and when the group will move on to the next topic.
In balance, based on the research evidence, brainstorming should be used judiciously, with lots of preparation and strict structures, and not be the only method of collaboration, and certainly not the only way to generate creative ideas.
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