Why Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Last Updated May 18, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

We all know the scenario: lots of people gather in a room to brainstorm a strategy, product idea, tag line, or mission statement. Veterans approach cynically, new recruits think it will be fun, and after an hour -- or two or three -- has passed, they all emerge drained, depressed, and demotivated. Why is this such a recurrent story?

Some academics in Texas set out to understand what goes wrong in brainstorming. Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith's analysis is impressive, not least because it reflects an appreciation that the executives who do brainstorming are also human beings. This means that they become anxious about their own contributions; in academic parlance, they suffer from 'evaluation apprehension,' meaning that they worry people will think their wild ideas foolish. Sometimes there are too many ideas and we can't keep them all in our heads. Then there's the phenomenon psychologists call 'social loafing,' which we probably all recognize: the people who sit at the back of the room contributing nothing at all. Only slightly less lazy is 'social matching,' which means that we are very likely to contribute lots of ideas so similar to each other as to be indistinguishable; it feels like we're making a contribution, but the range and variety of suggestions remains small. Conformity plays a big part here; our desire to belong restricts the breadth of ideas we might think of but don't dare to offer.

Working from examples only makes things worse. All of our 'new' ideas cluster around that, and we fail to be as broad-ranging and wild in our creativity as we need to be. So if we are trying to improve on a cup that has some design flaws, we create more flaws than if we had started from scratch. Examples, Kohn and Smith conclude, reduce creativity and increase conformity.

Moreover, creativity declines with time. In experiments, students from A&M University were asked to come up with ideas for improving their school. After twenty minutes, their ideas were coded (for variety, novelty, quantity and range of categories), and what was striking was how fast the group ran out of steam: the first five minutes were the most productive.

Most intriguing of all was that brainstorming alone proved to be more effective than brainstorming collectively. In those first five minutes, participants who sat at a computer and generated ideas came up with 44 percent more ideas than those in a group. This challenges received wisdom that says groups of people will come up with a wider range of ideas than similar minded people or those working alone. But what it takes into account is that when we come together, like it or not,we all start to become a little homogenized. What this finding implies is that the way to get the creative value of diversity -- and every company I know finds this a challenge -- is to encourage people to develop ideas alone, and only then bring them together.

I read a lot of academic research, and it often feels unreal or unhelpful. But not this study. It feels real because we've all sat in meetings well past the point at which they've ceased to be productive. The observation that we might be more creative working alone than together -- because we're less inhibited -- is genuinely provocative. In my next post, I take a look at how to use this understanding to improve upon the idea-generation process.
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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