Pioneered by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1940s, brainstorming has become the most popular creativity technique of all time. It operates as a kind of verbal free-for-all where participants think by association to come up with ideas to solve a problem.
For a business facing complex challenges, brainstorming is a compelling proposition. Lots of ideas are produced in very little time. Employees are democratically involved in the decision-making process and therefore are less likely to resist the implementation of the ideas later on. It sounds like the Holy Grail.
Yet study after psychological study reveals one startling fact: brainstorming doesn't work. When you put people in a room and tell them to brainstorm, they are going to come up with fewer ideas and less original ideas than people working by themselves. So, what's going wrong? Let's take a closer look.
How brainstorming works
The average brainstorming session plays by a number of well-established rules:
- Generate as many ideas as possible, regardless of quality
- Don't judge or criticize
- Wild and unusual ideas are encouraged
- Combining and refining ideas is encouraged.
These rules are based on three pseudo-scientific theories. First is the idea that multiple heads are better than one - the assumption that synergizing each other's ideas results in a bigger, better value proposition. The second theory is that creativity is inherently self-conscious and fragile. If a participant worries about being criticized, they will clam up and they won't be able to free associate ideas at all. Third, the assumption that quantity will always lead to quality.
The problem is, studies reaching back 60 years suggest that brainstorming actually hampers creative performance.
Where is brainstorming going wrong?
In a nutshell - group dynamics. Specifically:
- Free riding - people tend to make less effort in groups because responsibility is diffused across multiple people. Individual participants don't need to come up with an idea because others might.
- Production blocking - extroverts dominate introverts and hamper their idea generation. That's because participants can only express one idea at a time and extroverts are more likely to shout out their ideas. Introverts, by contrast, do not perform well under pressure or in noisy, distracting environments.
- Groupthink - participants feel pressured to assimilate their ideas with the dominant thoughts of the group. Known as collaborative fixation or groupthink, this tendency curbs the originality of the ideas being generated.
- Social anxiety - team members underperform because they fear their ideas will be (silently) judged by their peers. By contrast, individuals left to think alone don't have to fear their ideas being mocked.
These flaws mean that brainstorming is more placebo than any useful weapon in an organization's productivity arsenal.
What are the alternatives?
Studies by Charlan Nemeth show that the very foundation of brainstorming - don't criticize - plays a major part in its downfall. By giving all ideas equal weight, the group often gets stuck with bizarre, unoriginal or unworkable ideas. Discussions go off the rails when the group attempts to assimilate and build out those ideas, when in fact they should be ditching them. One solution, therefore, might be to open the group up to healthy debate and dissent. Groups that engage in constructive criticism come up with 25% to 40% more ideas and those ideas are rated as much more original, according to Nemeth.
A second option is brainwriting - the process of writing rather than vocalizing ideas through the use of post-it notes or iPads communicating with a document displayed on a projector screen. Brainwriting works like brainstorming except that it is done silently and no one's name is attached to any idea.
Brainwriting overcomes the groupthink and social anxiety problems of brainstorming as participants generate ideas in a vacuum, unedited by the other people in the room. It also stops the extroverts dominating the conversation; with brainwriting, everyone gets a chance. In her book Creative Conspiracy, Leigh Thompson suggests that brainwriting generates 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming.
A final, more collaborative solution is a theory called brainswarming. Developed by Dr. Tony McCaffrey and reported by video in the Harvard Business Review, brainswarming encourages the silent development of ideas within the context of a specific objective.
Brainswarming starts by writing a project goal or problem at the top of a whiteboard or chart. Resources available to meet the problem are listed at the bottom of the chart. Team members are then encouraged to add notes to the chart whenever they have an idea.
McCaffrey found that top down thinkers (Intuitives) start by redefining the project goal, while bottom up thinkers (Sensors) typically add more resources, or analyze how the existing resources could be used to solve the problem. The slam dunk happens somewhere in the middle where the two directions connect.
Are you still brainstorming?
Brainstorming has a place in the creative process, but it is not a magic bullet. Most of the time, you need several techniques to unlock flashes of inspiration and improve the effectiveness of group work. While conventional brainstorming plays a role in producing lots of ideas, it may be time to incorporate methods that foster better ideas if you want your company to ideate at an elite level.