Fact – Brainstorming doesn’t work
I’ve had this feeling for a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve actually come accross tangible research that proves the point: brainstorming as it is used in most agencies is not effective. Period.
I’m here talking about the brainstorming where a lot of people are put in a room and being asked to come up with ideas, out of the blue, and being asked not to restrain themselves, no idea is a bad idea… you know the whole thing, with little or no preparation beforehand. That one basically:
Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The method was first popularized in the late 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising executive and one of the founders of BBDO (Wikipedia).
What you get from brainstorming is a lot of ideas, yes, but a lot of bad ones.
The following is based on Keith Sawyer’s book, “group genius, the creative power of collaboration”, that I highly recommend.
Long story short:
Three Yale psychologists recruited 48 people and put them into 12 4-man groups. They gave them Osborn’s 4 basic rules of brainstorming, and then gave them 12 minutes each on 3 problems.
Then for comparison, they recruited 48 more people to work alone on the same problems, for the same amount of time; the solo workers were also given Osborn’s brainstorming rules.
After the 48 solitary subjects had finished their tasks, the researchers randomly assigned them to 12 “groups” of 4. The researchers chose to call these nominal groups.
The results? the nominal groups had generated twice as many ideas, and they were all judged more original, feasible and effective.
Since then many others studies have bolstered this point: it actually is better to get all people to spend an hour on their own thinking of ideas and sharing them later on rather than grouping them for a brainstorm (as we use it in our industry).
Why? 3 main reasons:
– Production blocking: the distraction that occurs from other’s people ideas or the fact that a group tends to become fixated faster and stay in the same category for longer
– Social inhibition: when a group member holds back an idea for fear of what the others will think.
– Social loafing: in a group you don’t feel accountable so you really feel like going the extramile for special recognition.
Which leads to a key question for the author:
If brainstorming isn’t the creative panacea some people have thought it to be, why does its popularity persists?
It’s because of the illusion of group effectiveness.
The rest of his book is about how to properly use group thinking, but I haven’t read it yet. I just wanted to share how I despise useless brainstorms and this was the first time I actually found information confirming my feeling.
So basically, we are all fooled thinking we need to have a “brainstorming” to generate better ideas, it’s not the case. Too often it is becoming the easy solution. But everytime we do, we are wasting precious time and resources.
This is not a rant at the process of group thinking, only at the way we use brainstorming.
Better ways include having people to prepare ideas before the actual group ‘thinking’. Groups are actually much better at evaluating ideas than they are at generating them.
Or giving specific questions to answer during the group session even giving some restricting criterias on what a good ideas should be about (not all ideas are good ones for the brief). It’s easy to get to an a hundred average ideas in a hour but it’s a lot more interesting to get to 10 good ones and exploit them.
But there you have it, before getting 10 people in a room to ‘brainstorm’ ideas, make sure you know what you want to get out of it. Please don’t give me the odd example of a great idea coming up from a classic brainstorming, of course it happens. But most often than not, it doesn’t.
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