Is Brainstorming Brain Dead?

I know this will be an unpopular point of view but I’ve come to the conclusion that brainstorming is a bad idea that doesn’t work.

Brainstorming advocates claim groups of people are more likely to find solutions to problems than individuals working alone. The idea was popularized in the 1950’s by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn who was frustrated by his employees’ inability to develop creative ideas for ad campaigns.   According to his book Applied Imagination, Osborn increased overall group creativity by encouraging the rapid generation of ideas and reducing the creative inhibitions among members.  His brainstorming mantra was “reach for quantity and defer judgment.”

In the name of brainstorming, participants are asked to generate as many ideas as possible, favoring sheer volume over specific solutions.  Participants ignore traditional constraints (such as budget or feasibility) and look for unusual approaches or perspectives.  The claim is this approach improves the odds of producing a radical and effective solution.

Over my career, I’ve seen little evidence which supports this claim.  Group brainstorming sessions might produce a higher volume of ideas than a single person would but groups don’t produce higher qualityideas.  A small number of people often dominate the conversation and group think almost always happens as a result of peer pressure.  In my experience, the most creative ideas have come from individuals working alone.

It turns out my (somewhat irrational) bias is confirmed by science. More than a dozen research studies show that individuals perform better than groups inboth quality and quantity, and the performance of brainstorming groups gets worse as size increases.  As organizational psychologist Adrian Furnhamquipped:

…business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone.

The failure of brainstorming doesn’t mean that group collaboration can’t work.  In the last few years SAP has had tremendous success with design thinking to spur practical creativity for solutions. Design thinking explicitlybalances desirability (what people want), technical feasibility, and economic viability. Unlike other approaches, design thinking starts with what is supposed to be achieved (the goal) rather than what needs to be changed (the problem).

This solution-based approach appeals to me because it mirrors my performance management philosophy.  Traditional brainstorming encourages a higher volume of ideas which improves activity-focused ego metrics. Design thinking focuses on the outcome we are trying to achieve: a solution people want that can be implemented in a cost-effective manner.

Now, that’s using your brain.

It’s also a non-brainer to follow me on twitter @jbecher

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  1. Naji Almahmoud

    Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique and your conclusion is favouring individual versus group creativity. I think brainstorming is excellent technique for group and individual but for different goals. We could achieve teaming and ownership through the group (in well managed session) and creativity through individual.

  2. Russell Plummer

    Jonathan, I’m disappointed that you chose only to use Alex Osborne as the source of your comparison and not the later works of, say, Vince Nolan or Arthur VanGrundy who both took the ideas of Brainstorming and developed them into practical tools that address the concerns you raise.

    Working alone suits certain types of people but not others, and surely the benefits of getting cross-boundary thinking to drive a wider range of ideas is core to teh creative portion of design thinking?

  3. Bonnie

    I did some of my Masters work on the topic of discourse analysis of online environments. Like face-to-face environments, there are ‘loud’ dominant voices and the ‘lurkers’ . However, the literature seems to suggest that the dynamic may be a product of socio-linguistics more than just being an extrovert. For example, Western culture tends values language that highlights individual accomplishments, standing out in a crowd, and rewards for being ‘out there’. Brainstorm groups are also handicapped by subtle power structures coming into play as people try to assert their own idea often at the expense of another or another idea.In contrast, some cultures may have a lower volume of ideas from an individual because group harmony is valued. Anyhow, I could go on into female and male language… The reason design thinking may be more creative is that it counteracts some of the nuances of socio-linguistics and power structures.

  4. Alexander

    Ironically, brainstorming is one of the core practices used in Design Thinking in the team to create a lot of ideas which might lead to a creative solution of a well understood problem. So it’s kind of weird to bash brainstorming, but praise Design Thinking.