Does Brainstorming Really Work?

Brainstorming as we know it – is the harvesting of ideas (good and bad) through a non-threatening, non-critical dump of ideas by a group. Right?

In the early 50’s, Alex Osborn of BBDO popularized Brainstorming in his surprise best selling book Your Creative Power. His ideas have permeated popular culture and even given rise to institutions like the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College and detailed pedagogical doctrines frequently employed by business consultants.

Well Brainstorm this, according to Ben Jones, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management brainstorming practices in organizations correlate to larger team sizes. In fact, over the last 50 years the size of the average team has increased by about 20% each decade.

Recently The New Yorker published an article by Johan Lehrer that not only questions the effectiveness of brainstorming but basically goes as far as to prove the practice detrimental to collecting creative ideas:  Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

Read more:

“‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Studies suggest that groups who debate and even criticize each other’s ideas are most creative by far… On average criticizing groups create about 20% more ideas.”

So if Brainstorming, as we know it, is not a reliable model for group creativity, what is?  Here are three concepts, supported by research and examined in the article:

  • Conflicting perspectives work to harness creativity
  • Team composition with an intermediate level of social network connections produce a higher level of success
  • The power of space can enhance a team’s effectiveness

If you’re working on building teams – and frankly what leader isn’t – GROUPTHINK by Jonah Lehrer is a good read.

How about you? Can you share any brainstorming good, bad or ugly stories? Go ahead and comment.

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