The Case for (and Against) Brainstorming

To be or not to be
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What a great idea. Get a group of people together and in no time, you’ll generate a heap of creative ideas you can draw from to do great things. Of course, ground rules are important. For example, there are no dumb ideas. Don’t criticize other people’s ideas; instead build on other people’s ideas. Focus on quantity over quality; the more ideas the better.

But is brainstorming effective? Several studies suggest that rather than unleashing the potential of a group, brainstorming actually makes each person less creative. People come up with far fewer ideas in a brainstorming session than the same number of people who work alone and then pool their ideas.

Evidence also suggests that the ideas tend to be poorer in quality. Why? Because some people slack off. And although no one is supposed to judge anyone else’s ideas, judging still takes place. Furthermore, when one person is talking, the others have to wait, and they often forget what they were going to say or dismiss it. There’s also a size constraint: Group performance declines as the group’s size increases.

In addition, there’s a risk of groupthink, a phenomenon in which a group drives towards unanimity about a decision without considering relevant alternatives or options—or the fact that not everyone actually agrees. As this chilling three-minute video about the 1986 Challenger explosion depicts, several forces such as rationalization and direct pressure come into play to cause groupthink. Brainstorming can succumb to similar forces.

Furthermore, extraverts tend to enjoy brainstorming much more than introverts, who prefer time to reflect before engaging in a shout-‘em-out. For many introverts, solitude is a better way to generate ideas than group interaction.

To avoid brainstorming’s potential negatives, consider brainwriting. Here’s one way to do it: Give each participant a sheet of paper with the problem statement at the top. Each participant writes down three ideas. After three minutes, participants pass their sheet of paper to the person to the left who reads what’s on it. A new three-minute round starts and each participant again jots down three ideas. The process repeats for a pre-determined number of rounds or until they run out of ideas. Everyone then reads, discusses and consolidates the ideas, ideally with the help of a facilitator.

The benefits of brainwriting include a vast number of ideas generated, everyone's having an equal chance to participate, no ideas lost, no judging of anyone’s ideas, and ideas building on each other.

Still, if you prefer traditional brainstorming, consider ways to make it fun. For example, use a “Yes, and….” exercise, in which every idea is, at least briefly, treated as if it’s the best idea of the day, with participants energetically responding to the idea with “yes, and...” Playful exaggeration is not only welcome but can help trigger ideas that might not have surfaced otherwise.

Yes, and... the laughter that results adds to the creativity of the session.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.