Home > creative collaboration, idea generation > Fact – Brainstorming doesn’t work

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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  1. JacobW
    March 19, 2008 at 6:09 am

    As you say, make sure you know what you want to get out of it. Brainstorming, as commonly practised, I find very useful. Why? Because I don’t expect to get ‘good’ ideas from the brainstorm, but I do expect to make a start on the problem, that can eventually yield a good idea. Nobody thinks well when everything is wide open – brainstorming lets you narrow down.

  2. March 19, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    To kind of answer your question on why we keep on brainstorming, I would say that it is a mean to involve different stakeholders in a process and increase the ownership and endorsement. As a result, maybe this technique should be used as a client-servicing technique:) But nothing new here, is not that what Jean-Marie Dru claim in his Disruption and Disruption Live books?

  3. Gaby
    March 20, 2008 at 3:01 am

    I totally agree. I find brainstorming on my own infinitely useful, but brainstorming in a group? I just shut down. Truly great ideas are often the fruit of a single mind, while brainstorming can result in a collection of half-hearted ideas that everybody’s happy enough with. Does brainstorming sacrifice greatness to give everyone the illusion that they’ve got some kind of influence? I’d choose the brilliant idea every time.

  4. Digicynic
    March 20, 2008 at 11:12 am

    Good points.

    I do find brainstorms, involving a lot of people, a waste of time in most occasions. I’m referring to the ones you go to without knowing what’s going on and when you didn’t prepare for it. They tend to be extremely unproductive, in my experience that is.

    As I said, you might still get one or two good ideas, but one has to wonder whether you might have had 4 or 5 good ones had you made people prepare beforehand and ask them to come up with one or two ideas of their own to be discussed in a group session.

    As Cedric says, I think we still do it for the illusion of being involved and that your opinion or ideas where taken into consideration.

    In brainstorms, I often end up not paying too much attention to what other people are saying because I’m thinking about how to sell my ideas to the group. I don’t find it the most productive ways of generating ideas.

    Reseach has proven that we get to better ideas by thinking of some on our own and then sharing them to the group at a latter stage as opposed as getting straight into brainstorming mode.

    And I’d agree with that.

  5. March 21, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Very intriguing. I ask everyone to do homework before I’m involved in any brainstorming, which I guess equates to the same thing – solitary time in advance of the main session. Very useful…
    And yes some people do well in brainstorms, others quieten down and do less work for one reason or another. Part of the key to making them successful (in my experience) is the ability of the moderator (project lead) to read the poeple in the room and to know who to prod and when.

    Nice to know someone has done some experiments in this area…thanks

  6. Digicynic
    March 25, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Funny how as soon as you write about something, you realise lots of people already had.

    Amelia had a little go, and pointed to this great post from Adliterate.
    http://www.adliterate.com/archives/2007/05/death_to_the_br.html

    I guess I was adding the fact that it was actually proven ‘scientifically’.

  1. September 11, 2008 at 11:00 am

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