Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

LINKEDIN-BRAINSTORMBrainstorming is an over-egged and over-cooked management idea. And it probably doesn’t work.


Yes, a group brainstorm (and that is what people mean when they talk about brainstorming) is a great fun event. But surely it is nothing more than executive entertainment. Cerebral popcorn. You know the buzzwords they use: creative juices blah, blah… team spirit blah blah…, collaborative working…. I believe the humble brainstorm’s reputation and popularity far outweighs its efficacy.

So, my case is this.

One, brainstorming just for the sake of it, because it’s expected or habit, may well be a waste of time.

Two, it may actually be less productive and creative than more traditional methods like working on your own.

Of course having the right training or methodology would help but most brainstorming sessions I have been involved in have been pretty unstructured, random and at best, ill-conceived. A bit of fun.

The research supports my point of view.

“As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” says Professor Leigh Thompson at the Kellogg School. That process is called anchoring. And it crushes originality. (Ironic!)

Anchoring influences everything that comes after it. (So much for free thought!)

“Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation,” Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explains. “They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem.”

In other words, because brainstorming favours the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas. This is conformity pressure.

A study by researchers at Texas A&M University concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities. The result is a conformity of ideas.

In a review of 22 studies of group brainstorming, Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe found that, overwhelmingly, groups brainstorming together produce fewer ideas than individuals working separately.

The conclusion appears to be that group creativity may be an overestimated method to generate ideas. On the other hand, individual brainstorming exercises (as opposed to group brainstorming sessions), such as written creativity drills may be more effective.

So, before you rush headlong into your next brainstorming group, think carefully about what is the most effective way to get the result that you want.