Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. But is it as effective as it’s thought to be? Do the individuals working in brainstorming groups become more creative and productive than the ones work alone?
Written by: Deniz Saral, PhD
The term “brainstorming”, which was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination, still carries an utmost importance in today’s literature on being creative in business and industries. Osborn outlined four rules of brainstorming:
focus on quantity
welcome unusual ideas
combine and improve ideas
However, most studies find that a number of individuals working on their own will generate more diverse ideas than the same number participating in a brainstorming session. The challenges with brainstorming arise from our behavior in groups. We tend to conform to the will of the group, reducing our creative output.
Here are four primary reasons why Brainstorming doesn’t work.
Social Loafing: Social loafing is the phenomena where individuals work less hard in a group than they would if they were working alone. If you alone are responsible for generating 3 new ideas, you’ll work harder than if you are in a group that is responsible for the same output.
Conformity: Groups conform. We’ve all experienced a group’s reaction to an odd-ball suggestion and watched as the suggester ducks away from his/her own idea. Conformity is great for establishing group norms and for creating cohesion. It’s less great when the goal is a diverse set of novel ideas.
Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation.
Sharing ideas in groups isn’t the problem, it’s the “out-loud” part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. “As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School-Northwestern University, said “Sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to my ideas.” That process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality. This is why early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation.
Production Blocking; In most brainstorming sessions, people shout out ideas one at a time. This process is susceptible to production blocking. Production blocking happens when another person’s idea interferes with your own. You have an idea on the tip of your tongue right as someone else throws out an idea and suddenly your idea is gone.
Downward Norm Setting: This is the phenomenon where the overall performance of the group devolves to the performance of the lowest performing member. We like to believe that we can elevate the performance of groups. But research suggests this isn’t true. Groups tend to perform at the level of their weakest member.
You might be reading this and think this can’t possibly be true. Many responded that way when they learned about this. They relied on brainstorming a lot and it seemed to work!
That’s because brainstorming falls prey to the faulty performance illusion. Groups that participate in brainstorming sessions feel like they are being effective. They do generate ideas. It’s easy to feel good about this.
Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri, USA), has 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 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.”
The challenges with brainstorming arise from our behavior in groups. We tend to conform to the will of the group, reducing our creative output. We suffer from social loafing, where we assume that others in the group will contribute, so we don’t work as hard as we would if we were on our own. Group behavior tends to devolve to that of the lowest performing member.
And finally, ideas collide. We’ve all had the experience where you were just about to say something when someone else jumps in, and you quickly lose your idea. This doesn’t happen when we work alone.
So why do creative firms continue to tout the benefits of brainstorming?
There are two primary arguments. The first is that brainstorming is a skill that needs to be developed. Proponents of this position argue that companies should bring in facilitators to support brainstorming sessions.
This argument has merit. The research does show that facilitated brainstorming groups do match the performance of individuals working on their own. But most companies don’t have access to trained facilitators, and it’s hard to justify the cost of bringing one in since companies can get the same outcome by having people generate ideas individually.
The second argument is that the collaborative benefits of brainstorming outweigh the loss in creative output. This might be true. Brainstorming does bring people together. It helps people feel like they are a part of the process. This is particularly important in creative firms, where there are tremendous benefits to including the client in the creative process. If the client feels like part of an innovative process, it may be happier with the results.
But do we have to trade off collaboration for creative output?
Fortunately, the answer is no.
Leigh Thompson and Leo F. Brajkovich (Improving the Creativity of Organizational Work Groups, The Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb 2003), pp.96-111) make several recommendations on how to improve brainstorming. The simplest is to do brainwriting. Here’s how it works:
- Have each participant write his or her ideas down silently.
- After ideas have been captured, share ideas in a round-robin fashion.
- Do multiple sessions of writing, followed by sharing, so that people have a chance to build on one another’s ideas.
Making this simple change addresses many of the challenges with creative output that arise during group brainstorming sessions while still keeping the collaborative benefits.