Brainstorming as a technique was pioneered and championed by advertising executive Alex Osborn. In Your Creative Power, Osborn outlined the core principles of brainstorming. Work in groups of 5 to 10. Everyone has a creative spark. There are no bad ideas. Generate as many ideas as you can. Withhold criticism and judgment. Osborn’s work—along with subsequent vogues for divergent (J. P. Guilford) and lateral (Edward de Bono) soon became popular in corporations ranging from Better Homes and Gardens to Kraft to DuPont. Brainstorming’s still widely used today, and strongly echoed in methodologies like design thinking as a method for ideation and problem solving.
The trouble with brainstorming
Unfortunately, brainstorming probably doesn’t work nearly as well as we’d like it to. Numerous empirical studies have debunked brainstorming, going back nearly as long as brainstorming’s been around. Research has shown time and time again that groups aren’t as effective as individuals at problem solving. In his critique of lateral thinking for Aeon, Antonio Melechi points to more than 60 empirical studies that call into question the efficacy of brainstorming. According to Mullen, Johnson, and Salas (1991), for example, brainstorming groups generated fewer strong ideas and were less capable of exploring a breadth of topics than the same number of people working individually. Similarly, Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management found that individuals outperformed groups when it came to divergent thinking.
There are several problems with brainstorming, which affect our capacity to generate ideas as well as our ability to evaluate those ideas we do come up with.
When people work in groups, they are less likely to share positions or ideas that they feel might provoke dissensus. They conform to what they believe will be prevailing attitude of the group, and (perhaps unconsciously) strive to perform their belonging to the group by withholding opinions that might disrupt the group’s dynamic.
Another is “social loafing,” or the tendency of individuals in a group to hold back based on the belief that others will contribute. The net result of this behaviour is that the group’s performance regresses toward that of the lowest performing member.
How do we know if an idea is a good one? It’s hard. Justin M. Berg, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that people are typically not very good at evaluating whether an idea is worth pursuing. They eliminate their best ideas quickly, not because they’re bad ideas but because they are less concrete than other ideas on the table.
Participants in a brainstorming session are also susceptible to the availability heuristic, which has us depend heavily on information that is top-of-mind rather than what is perhaps more relevant to the topic at hand. The result is that, when brainstorming, we don’t actually generate new ideas; we simply regurgitate ideas we most recently encountered, even if other, less available ideas and concepts are more relevant. This becomes especially troublesome because we are further biased to cling to our earliest ideas, even if they’re not our best ideas.
Typically, brainstorming is a focused session over a few hours at most. But creativity doesn’t always work that way. Often, our best insights emerge at inconvenient times, when we’ve stepped away from the problem. There’s a reason why some of our best ideas happen when we’ve stepped out for a walk or are in the shower. And, sometimes, ideas just need time to percolate.
A bit too frictionless
Furthermore, it'’s possible that brainstorming is just a bit too frictionless. Brainstorming’s precept that there are no bad ideas, and it’s injunction against judgment, means that brainstorming lacks the kind of friction and conflict that’s actually necessary to generate insight. As Melechi argues, deliberation and dissent is, in fact, valuable, especially when it comes time for decision-making. After all, most of our ideas won’t actually be viable. And, we tend to be irrationally optimistic about outcomes will at the same time underestimating the effort required for delivery. It’s important to take time, at some point, to critically poke and prod our ideas to make sure they pass muster.
Finally, it’s important to remember that brainstorming isn’t a substitute for the hard work of research and strategy. A brainstorming session can feel extraordinarily energizing and productive. But remember: it’s not a short cut. It feels productive, but typically brainstorming doesn’t produce any new information or insights. It just gets a lot of the existing ones on the table. Brainstorming emphasizes generating a quantity of ideas, but having a lot of ideas is rarely the problem. Usually, the challenge lies in selecting the right ones. And brainstorming might help the participants come to a shared conclusion about what they feel are the right ideas to pursue, but that doesn’t mean they are actually the best ideas.
Building a better brainstorm
None of this is to suggest that brainstorming is a worthless activity. On the contrary, it can be a helpful way to rally a team. And, even if brainstorming isn’t effective at generating new ideas, it can be a helpful exercise for surfacing existing ones.
But to get the most out of brainstorming, it’s important to approach it the right way.
Get a good facilitator
Facilitation is more than just walking people through an activity. It takes skill to not only keep the participants focused, but to know when to push deeper and to back off. Experience helps a lot. So does understanding what activities are going to work to produce the outcome you need to achieve.
Get a diverse group
Brainstorming works better when a diverse group is involved. This doesn’t just mean a cross-functional team representing design, technology, marketing, and sales. It means bringing together different perspectives, backgrounds, and even thinking styles. It’s been found that adding outsiders to the group can even help so-called insiders come to more original insights.
But don’t stop there. When diverse groups assemble, they still tend to focus on shared information. It goes back to groupthink: talking about shared information helps everyone feel like they’re on the same page and the group is unified. But this is counterproductive. If you want to maximize the value of that diverse knowledge, Daniel Kahnemann suggests asking each participant to independently compose a summary of their position on the issue being discussed. As well, call out each individual’s area of expertise. Make sure that they know that their unique perspective is critical to the choices that are being made.
Brainstorm for convergent thought
Don’t use brainstorming when you’re trying to generate a lot of new ideas. People do that better on their own. If you want to generate new ideas or insights, give people time and space to work alone. Then, bring the group together when it is time for convergent thought. Consider trying brain writing: with this technique, individuals write down their ideas silently, then take turns sharing with the group. Repeat the cycle a few times to give people a chance to build off what others have said.
Invalidate rather than validate
A common practice coming out of brainstorming is to do more research to “validate” the ideas. Resist this impulse. Actively seeking to validate the concepts that you’ve developed increases the risk of confirmation bias—that you’ll emphasize corroborating evidence while ignoring contradictory information. Instead, optimize for being wrong. Set your goal to try to invalidate as many ideas as you can. You may find that this actually strengthens the support you have for your best concepts.
Don’t think it’s a shortcut
Remember. Brainstorming is a tool. It’s all too easy to look at a wall full of sticky notes, sketchy wireframes, and empathy maps and think that you’ve collapsed weeks or months of work into a short workshop. It’s true: brainstorming activities can be a powerful tool, but it doesn’t give you a cheat code to move past the hard stuff.