Brainstorming is great fun, good for team building and a self-esteem builder. However, it does fail in one rather important way. It is not very good at providing you with creative ideas. It is even worse if you want a highly creative idea to implement. I have criticised brainstorming in the past, but I have yet to compile my anti-brainstorming thoughts into a single article. Until now!
The first thing we need to do here is to clarify what I mean by brainstorming. The word has two meanings. The first is as a generic term for generating ideas. This is how it is most widely used. But within creativity circles, brainstorming is a specific process devised by Alex Osborn, an advertising chap, in the 1940s. He later wrote about brainstorming in several books on creativity that he wrote. He also teamed up with Sidney Parnes to develop a most sophisticated creativity approach known as creative problem solving (CPS), which has been institutionalised and revered at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College.
Surprisingly, when you consider that creativity is all about trying out new ideas and embracing change, brainstorming has remained largely unchanged since Mr. Osborn invented it based on a series of assumptions that he made while running his ad agency! This is even more surprising when you consider that these assumptions have largely been proven wrong over the years. Nevertheless, a large number of creativity experts cling to brainstorming as an unchangeable technique that must be followed simply because it has been been around for so many years!
Three Intrinsic Flaws
Brainstorming has three serious flaws that prevent it from being very effective as an idea generation method: people shouting out ideas is less creative than people writing ideas individually; reserving judgement and prohibiting criticism reduces creativity; and decision makers tend to choose moderately creative ideas over highly creative ideas. The first is easily resolved. The second two are fatal. All three of these flaws have been found and tested through clinical research by individuals and groups that have nothing to gain by finding flaw with brainstorming. Let’s look at the research.
The Group Thing Does Not Quite Work
In 1958, a team at Yale University was one of the first to test brainstorming. They put together several groups to generate ideas. Half of the groups followed Osborn’s method and collaborated to generate ideas. The other half were nominal groups in which each member simply wrote down ideas without interacting with others in the group. What Yale University found was that the nominal groups consistently had more ideas and more creative ideas than the brainstorming group. Each group followed the same rules and focused on the same problem statement. The only difference was whether they worked as a group or as individuals.
Subsequent tests have confirmed this. Fortunately, however, for the brainstorm facilitator, it is not a difficult problem to get around. For instance, you can have people write down ideas individually for a period before putting them in a group to combine ideas and generate more.
Criticism Enhances Creativity
The fundamental rule of brainstorming, of course, is that there is to be no criticism of ideas. Criticising ideas will hurt people’s feelings and inhibit them, preventing them from sharing creative ideas. This assumption sounds really good. But it is also flawed. Some researchers at University of California, Berkeley set up some brainstorming teams in three sets. One set was given no instructions. The second set was given traditional brainstorming instructions and specifically told not to criticise ideas during idea generation. The third set was given brainstorming instructions with difference. This set was specifically encouraged to criticise ideas during the idea generation phase. Most of the teams in the set given traditional brainstorming instructions moderately outperformed the teams in the set given no instructions. But the teams specifically told to criticise ideas came up with the best results by far!
This bit of research appals most brainstorm facilitators and lovers of CPS because it breaks a fundamental rule of brainstorming and, indeed, CPS: criticism is not allowed during ideation. Any hint of criticism will cause participants to clam up, become inhibited and stop sharing ideas. But, as the Berkeley research has show, this is not the case. Criticism actually enhances to level of creativity (note to brainstorm facilitators: if you doubt this, I have a suggestion, give it a try and see what happens if you encourage people to criticise ideas during ideation)
Frankly, I am not surprised by the results. When I think about my artistic collaborations, the idea generation process was never like traditional brainstorming. It was an argumentative debated. Ideas were criticised, discussed in detail and thrown away if they were not good enough. Seemingly silly ideas, once defended became core ideas to the project.
I have also discussed this with scientists working on cutting edge research. Their response has been the same. When collaborating on creative projects, criticism, debate and discussion is the norm.
People Do Not Like Creative Ideas
Because the aim of brainstorming is to produce a large number of ideas, the result of any brainstorm will be a long list of ideas that someone needs to sort through in order to identify which idea or idea to take forward. Brainstorming does not address this. CPS is vague. In practice, there may be a vote for best ideas. In any event, ideas are often organised in some fashion and presented to a manager who must make a decision. Surely, you might think, in this era of innovation and creativity in which bosses extole the importance of creative thinking and necessitty of innovation, managers will normally select the most creative idea. After all, the most creative idea has the greatest potential to become a major innovation.
But the truth is, in spite of what they say, people do not like creative ideas very much. Indeed, research at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated that people are biased against creative ideas. Indeed, given a choice of ideas to implement, most people will select relatively conventional ideas over more creative ideas. This is doubly true if evaluation criteria are vague (such as “choose the best idea”).
Indeed, in my own experience of brainstorming (as a facilitator and participant), people will always generate “buzzword ideas” — these are ideas that incorporate the buzzwords, or popular jargon being used in the organisation in question. Moreover, these buzzword ideas are often chosen as the best ideas. I suspect that astute managers realise this and use brainstorms as tools to legitimise going forward with a particular conventional idea, rather than as a means of coming up with new ideas.
In fact, I’ve found that a lot of brainstorms result in a long list of ideas and no further action. However, this is not so much an intrinsic flaw in brainstorming as lack of planning on the part of the person organising the brainstorm.
In spite of the criticism of brainstorming and CPA, many creativity facilitators continue to use it, prefering to criticise the criticism rather than explore alternative approaches. And many such facilitators manage to overcome some of the weaknesses of brainstorming. However, I liken this to a battered, 20 year old sports car with 200,000 KM on the odometer. A good mechanic can keep the car working well enough to drive it. But such a car will never perform as well as a new sports car incorporating new technology.
That said, it is important to understand that although brainstorming is not an effective means of generating truly creative ideas, it does have benefits. It is a great team building exercise. It’s marvellous for positive reinforcement (where else in today’s busy workplace can you be guaranteed not to be criticised for a few hours?). And it is good for making people feel they are being innovative. After all, a brainstorm is only judged by how many ideas were generated, not by the quality or eventual implementation of ideas.
There are a handful of alternatives to brainstorming — though many of them are only slight modifications on brainstorming, introducing gimmick or two. Moreover, many alternatives retain the flaws of brainstorming, in particular they prohibit the criticism, debate and discussion of ideas; and they aim to generate a large number of ideas rather than highly creative ideas. Hence it is all too likely that conventional ideas will be chosen over unconventional ideas. Or worse, no ideas will be chosen at all!
There is also anticonventional thinking (ACT) — a method I have developed, over the past couple of years, in response to the criticisms of brainstorming and CPS. I believe it is the most radical alternative, which is odd. Because when I have demonstrated it, people tell me it is very easy. It is. It’s the way artists, writers and scientists tend to develop ideas they need to implement. I’ve simply formalised the process. You can learn more about ACT here.
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.