Brainstorming is Brain Dead

brainstormingI know this will be an unpopular point of view but I’m just going to say it:

Brainstorming is a bad idea that doesn’t work.

Brainstorming advocates claim groups of people are more likely to find solutions to problems than individuals working alone. The idea was popularized in the 1950’s by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn who was frustrated by his employees’ inability to develop creative ideas for ad campaigns.   According to his book Applied Imagination, Osborn increased overall group creativity by encouraging the rapid generation of ideas and reducing the creative inhibitions among members.  His brainstorming mantra was “reach for quantity and defer judgment.”

In the name of brainstorming, participants are asked to generate as many ideas as possible, favoring sheer volume over specific solutions.  Participants ignore traditional constraints (such as budget or feasibility) and look for unusual approaches or perspectives.  The claim is this approach improves the odds of producing a radical and effective solution.

I think the claim is hogwash.  Group brainstorming sessions might produce a higher volume of ideas than a single person would but groups don’t produce higher quality ideas.  A small number of people often dominate the conversation and group think almost always happens as a result of peer pressure.  In my experience, the most creative ideas have come from individuals working alone.

It turns out my (somewhat irrational) bias is confirmed by science. More than a dozen research studies show that individuals perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and the performance of brainstorming groups gets worse as size increases.  As organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham quipped:

…business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone.

The failure of brainstorming doesn’t mean that group collaboration can’t work.  In the last few years we’ve had tremendous success with design thinking to spur practical creativity for solutions. Design thinking explicitly balances desirability (what people want), technical feasibility, and economic viability. Unlike other approaches, design thinking starts with what is supposed to be achieved (the goal) rather than what needs to be changed (the problem).

This solution-based approach appeals to me because it mirrors my performance management philosophy.  Traditional brainstorming encourages a higher volume of ideas which improves activity-focused ego metrics.  Design thinking focuses on the outcome we are trying to achieve: a solution people want that can be implemented in a cost-effective manner.

Now, that’s using your brain.

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13 Responses to Brainstorming is Brain Dead

  1. Holly Roland August 12, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Completely agree. I was recently called upon to debate the question of whether teams or individual contributions were more critical in achieving innovative results. I was in the minority when I claimed that, while both are important, individual contributions are more critical to achieving innovation because working independently — within the context of a larger group — is as necessary as (and similar to) sleeping. We all need sleep to regenerate our bodies and refresh our minds, and, probably most importantly, to process what has happened in the course of the day. Often, when we awaken, we have a fresh perspective on the day before and new ideas for addressing challenges. It’s the same with individual contributions. We may receive new ideas from a team environment (though that is debatable) but its critically important that organizations allocate proper time and (yes) private space to enable quiet reflection and experimentation — free from domineering team members or office politics and group think — to allow individuals to produce new and much better ideas. Even more importantly, organizations need to find the people who most often generate the best ideas and empower those people to follow through on them without undue meddling or disruption by those who may be threatened by the change. This last area is where most organizations fail for the inability to get out of their own way.

    • Jonathan August 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      Sleep is an interesting analogy to creativity. I can go fairly long periods with ‘not enough sleep’ but then need a long time to catch up. I wonder if the same pattern plays out in creativity.

  2. Raunak August 13, 2012 at 4:18 am #

    agree to a fair degree,Jonathan. I think Brainstorming (BS) comes in handy when a team needs to explore possibilities and the team members lack sufficient individual knowledge in the given sector/domain. When an employee is an expert in the domain or is smart enough to know where to look for information, he should be left alone. Wish you had written this post when I could show it to my b-school professors and gotten myself out of group brainstorming sessions :)

    • Jonathan August 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      Hi Raunak,

      If team members lack sufficient information, do you think they should brainstorm or perhaps find someone more closely tied to that domain who can help?

      Regards,

      • Raunak August 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

        now that, I agree with.Whenever in doubt, seek the experts.

  3. bharatwrites August 13, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    ” A small number of people often dominate the conversation and group think almost always happens as a result of peer pressure.”
    I think this statement says it best. I’ve observed this often. The more eloquent or more charismatic or sometimes the loudest people dominate and the homogenous result obtained is considered to be the product of brainstorming, when it’s actually because of peer-pressure.

  4. kevinjenscox August 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    Jonathan,

    It seems a strong statement of non-diversity to go so far as to say brainstorming is hogwash. One of the benefits of brain storming is to expose multiple perspectives to come up with the strongest idea. As someone who’s made their career on the development of creative thinking for many technology and Fortune 1000 companies, I blush at the number of times I’ve seen “closed thinking” (this seems to be the negative space defined by the statement) lead people right up to the cliff’s edge. Maybe it is your approach to brainstorming that is generating the lackluster results. As they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    Kind regards,
    Kevin Cox

  5. Moraimag August 14, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    I used to be the kind of employee that was better left alone, but an experience in a creative communication agency made me a believer of brainstorming. Some of the best work I did was when I could build on other people’s reaction to an idea. I learned to respect creative people that not always think about feasibility but that are the people that can get out of the cliché and come up with something new. Instead of saying that it’s hogwash, I would say that a brainstorming session must be well executed and it does not work for every type of problem.
    – You need to provide enough information about the problem and what do you want to achieve well in advance so that you don’t waste time explaining the problem and setting objectives during the session
    – You need a diverse group. In the experience I mentioned we had a philosopher, a writer, a marketer, a PR person, a business manager and a logistics coordinator. I have never had more fun at work and felt more creative even though I am of the pragmatic sort
    – You need a good leader to avoid the common pitfall of letting the loudest dominate
    – You need structure to collect the ideas and to vet which ones merit further investigation
    Once you do that, then people leave to work alone to see if the ideas really work, so I think it’s a great combination of group/individual work. I actually think Design thinking uses a lot of the best practices of brainstorming; I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.

  6. Annie Miu Hayward August 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    amen. the great american novel was never written by a committee. the highly successful “intel inside” campaign from decade-plus ago was conceived by 3 ppl. i took a design-thinking bootcamp from tina seelig at the d school awhile back, and everyone in class ended up with an actual product idea.

  7. Robert E August 17, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    People must personally invest themselves and their efforts into realizing these ‘big ideas’. Brainstorming actually works AGAINST positive movement because it too often disperses energy and effort.

    I work at a radio station where, as a group, we decide on a theme for April 1st programming. While many ideas are funny or innovative, rarely does the idea-generator consider the time and resources needed to execute on the idea. (The classic rules of brainstorming.)

    This creates havoc because too many people get seduced by a clearly unworkable idea or some vaguely fluffy concept. Then your outliers and introverts won’t speak up, but don’t like that idea and just sit on their hands.

    Either way, neither group makes the personal commitments or the personal investments to bringing the idea to life.

    Your added challenge, as a leader, is finding a way of undoing all that energy and disappointment; to channel people back to making great things happen.

    The station’s greatest accomplishments have come from the vision of a few, who then successfully rally everyone around an idea or an event to make it come into being.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Is Brainstorming Dead? | Sparks |  Catalyst Strategies - September 19, 2012

    [...] you’ve been part of a failed brainstorm, you may agree with the claim that brainstorming is dead.  Naysayers believe brainstorming is fad of the past that doesn’t work, and perhaps never did. [...]

  2. Looking for your creativity? – Take a shower or Go for a run! Yes, seriously! « Motivation in Motion - November 2, 2012

    [...] Well, today we know that this is not the best set up for getting the creative juices flowing. Studies clearly indicate that being locked into a room is not productive and brainstorming has even shown to have a negative effect on creativity if followed strictly. This is nicely highlighted in multiple studies and articles like the one in Washington post called Brainstorming: An idea past its prime and in Psychology today Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Improve Productivity or Creativity. I also want to mention a blog by my fellow SAP colleague Jonathan Becher, who I follow, that have some interesting perspectives on brainstorming: Brainstorming is Brain Dead [...]

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