Science shows brainstorms don’t work. Why do we still use them?
Brainstorming was first introduced to the world in 1942. It was outlined in the book How To Think Up by Alex Osborn, one of the founders of advertising agency BBDO. He started experimenting with techniques to improve group creativity in his agency and found that his brainstorming technique helped him do just that. It was designed for the world of advertising at a moment in history. And, funnily enough, these days ad agencies are the last places you’ll ever find the technique being used.
Almost as soon as the brainstorming technique became popular, academics began studying it. And right from the start the results have been less than favourable. Many of the studies compared the technique to individuals working independently on the same problem and found that brainstorming produced fewer ideas and less diverse ideas than the same number of lone thinkers. Pretty damning stuff.
But this news clearly hasn’t made it into the corporate world. Companies continue to use brainstorming as their default technique for generating ideas. And it seems that the biggest benefit they can get out of it is a temporary boost in staff morale.
But group creativity isn’t a bad thing. Your staff are oozing with knowledge, experience and potential. And there are really great ways of harnessing that and using it to generate effective ideas. If we can simply move beyond brainstorms.
Let’s start with some scientific and anecdotal arguments against the traditional brainstorm. Then we’ll look at how to improve your group creativity sessions.
Narrowing down the thinking
Studies have shown that when people are working together in a room, they tend to over-focus on a smaller number of concepts. The social dynamic of the group naturally limits the areas explored in the session. This is exacerbated as new ideas tend to conform to those already suggested by other participants. This is the exact opposite effect that you would want from an idea-generation session.
The race to the bottom
There are two psychological effects that have the tendency to reduce individual input in a brainstorming session. The first of these – the matching effect – explains why a few lethargic and cynical people in a room tend to bring the whole room down. People tend to undergo a regression to the mean, where the more able members of the group end up matching the performance of their less able counterparts. Related to this is the sucker effect. It’s similarly damaging for group sessions. People with lots to offer tend to tone down their contributions when they know there are freeloaders and slackers in the room who aren’t putting in as much effort. You’re never going to get people with the same amount of energy and talent in a room, so this is always going to be an issue.
The idea bottleneck
The typical method of brainstorming involves one person with a marker pen and flipchart noting down the ideas of one attendee at a time. This method causes something known as production blocking, where valuable ideas that are thought of by others while someone else is speaking are often lost. They are either forgotten, discarded as off-topic or left behind as more thoughts come to mind. Without a suitable means to capture these, a brainstorm session fails to be a truly effective way of generating ideas.
Quantity not quality
The premise of brainstorming is that the more ideas you produce, the more chance there is of you finding a good one. This focus on quantity is often to the detriment of quality. You should really be aiming to generate effective and fresh ideas that elegantly solve a problem. Snipers beat blunderbusses every time.
A bumper bag of first thoughts
Most brainstorms are run with whoever happens to be available at the time. People are dragged away from their desk, told about a problem, then asked to come up with ideas. Without the chance to get their mind around the issues, they come up with uninformed first thoughts. These first thoughts are what great creative thinkers use to fill their bin. They tend to be mental explorations rather than great solutions. Brainstorms usually capture the groundwork that could potentially lead to good ideas rather than the good ideas themselves.
Let’s encourage bad ideas
During brainstorm sessions, the facilitator will often try to coax people to contribute by saying “c’mon, there’s no such thing as a bad idea!” Except, we all know that there is. Lowering the creative standards can actually be a really good thing for encouraging the flow of ideas. But it has to be matched with people looking for the potential and then raising ideas up to a higher level. Instead, it tends to encourage loud mouths to fill the airtime out of all good intention. These people are uncomfortable with silence and just start talking, regardless of the quality of their contribution. This makes it harder for other people to think and contribute. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the standards a bit higher. Don’t be afraid of silence if it’s giving people time to think more deeply.
There’s always judgement
As much as brainstorms are often conducted under the premise that judgement is to be reserved, everyone knows that’s never quite the case. All ideas have to be evaluated at some point and silence about your contribution is merely another form of criticism. Fear is the ultimate creativity killer. When most attendees are quietly judging everyone else in their head, they don’t want to say something that could cause others to judge them as stupid or reckless or unpredictable. You have to work with these people on a daily basis and it’s far easier to destroy your reputation than it is to grow it.
Lack of pre-thought
Simply putting a bunch of people in a room and telling them about a problem isn’t the same as preparing them for generating ideas. Yet that’s the way the majority of brainstorms are run. Both the facilitator and the attendees need to come to the session prepared and ready to go. Yet, that is rarely the case.
A bumper bag of nonsense
Most brainstorm sessions end with the facilitator handing a bunch of badly-scrawled flipchart pages and PostIt notes to their assistant to type up. No judgement was done during the session. And more than likely, nothing will happen with any of the ideas. The nuance of good ideas are lost and forgotten in the process. The potential of the session has dwindled to nothing. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Creativity takes its final rattling breath dreaming of what could have been.
Pretty compelling points, aren’t they?
But don’t let it get you down. Really! This is great news.
Brainstorms were a fantastic starting point. They helped corporations understand that they could harness the creativity of their staff. And all of these learnings can help us to build better and more effective ways of doing that. Brainstorms had their moment in the spotlight and now it’s time to move on.
The best way forward is, of course, to get proper training. Just don’t pick a course that promises to teach you brainstorm skills! (I’ll admit to being totally biased because I run a course that teaches you alternative techniques!)Brainstorms had their moment in the spotlight and now it’s time to move on.Click To Tweet
But if you insist on continuing with the ‘B’ word, here are some tips that can greatly improve them. (In Alex Osborn’s defence, he mentioned some of these in his writings in the 1940s and people chose to ignore them.)
Facilitators should be trained
They should understand how to create a clear and simple brief. They should know how to prepare for a session. And they should know how to stimulate people’s thoughts with the right questions. They should understand the role of the idea-generation session within the larger creative process. And they should know how to select the right ideas and sell them on to the right people within the organisation.
Create the right group
Groups should be large enough to offer a breadth of thought but not so large that people can get by without participating. Between 5 and 12 is a good size. You probably don’t want too broad a range of seniority in the room – junior people will be in real fear of being judged and senior people will feel too much pressure to contribute. It can also lead to idea conformity where people try to show respect to their seniors by giving their ideas more weight and attention.
Do the preparation
We’re assuming that the facilitator has done some great work writing the brief and giving some clear and well-articulated direction. This needs to be given to the hand-selected contributors in advance. At least a day in advance. Attendees should be asked to come to the session with some ideas. That means everyone is familiar with the task and the session starts with some good momentum.
Judge and develop
When you’ve got your stack of ideas, you need to select the best ones. Your brief should help you with that. It should give you criteria to judge the ideas against. Create three piles. One is for all the ideas that fit your criteria. The second is for the ideas that don’t quite match all the criteria but still excite you. And third is for everything else. The third pile belongs inside a recycling bin. Now spend some time seeing if you can make the ideas in the second pile more suitable. And finally spend some time seeing if you can make the ideas in the first pile more interesting.
Don’t stop at the end
Most people stop thinking about the problem at the end of the session. Don’t let them. Ask them to come up with more ideas over the next couple of days. Set an expectation that they need to keep thinking about it. Maybe get them together again for another session so you can benefit from these extra thoughts. Have reasonable expectations about your idea-generation sessions. You’re not going to solve your problem for the price of half an hour of people’s time and a packet of choc chip cookies. One session is unlikely to get you everything you want. Work out your whole process and see where some group creative thinking fits in best.
This should give you a good understanding of how well your organisation uses group creativity. Maybe you just need to make a few tweaks. Or maybe you need to make a more fundamental change. The good news is that nearly 60 years of research into brainstorming has given us some fantastic understandings of where we can improve on Osborn’s thinking. And there are brainstorm alternatives that can release the potential of your team and generate more effective ideas.
So maybe the best idea you can have right now is to forward this on to the right people in your organisation.
Or just leave a printout on their desk and run away.
Because nobody should ever suffer through a bad brainstorm again.Nobody should ever suffer through a bad brainstorm again.Click To Tweet
More articles debunking brainstorms:
Forbes – Brainstorming Doesn’t Work
Psychology Today – Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Improve Productivity or Creativity
Harvard Business Review – Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time
Inc – Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work
The Guardian – Brainstorming doesn’t work – four exercises to flex your creativity