Brainstorming, commonly defined as the spontaneous generation of ideas out loud in a group, is inextricably linked to the creative process and is firmly established in the business realm as one of the best routes to lightbulb moments. It’s a process that has followed me all the way from elementary school science class sessions to upper level marketing classes at university. However, being mildly introverted and not wanting to compete with louder group members, I’d always wondered at the efficiency of this process that we’ve been doing for so many years.
And by years, I really mean decades. Brainstorming was the idea of BBDO ad man Alex Osborn who came up with the term and process in 1942. There were four established rules that went along with Osborn’s process: focus on quantity, don’t critique ideas as they emerge, remain open to out-of-the-box ideas, and combine ideas to create better ones. Being in advertising, it’s not surprising that Osborn was able to get such widespread adoption of his idea. Plus, he very liberally extolled the virtues of brainstorming, claiming the process increased the effectiveness of ideation by up to 50%.
The only thing is, it doesn’t always work that well.
Despite Osborn’s hyperbole in favor of brainstorming, decades of research has definitively proven that it just isn’t all that effective. Keith Sawyer, associate professor at Washington University, revealed in a New Yorker article that the number and quality of ideas formed in a group pale in comparison to those generated by group members in isolation. These findings have been born out multiple times, including a meta-analytic study of various brainstorming related studies.
Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Always Work Very Well
There are numerous reasons for the ineffectiveness of brainstorming, the first of which is social loafing. People are inherently lazier in groups—both mentally and physically. In fact, preliminary experiments noted the phenomena with individuals in groups pulling on a rope attached to a weight. The more people you added, the lower the tow weight per-person. For example, an average person might be able to pull 50lbs with a rope, but add ten more people on the rope and divide the maximum weight pulled and you might only get 35lbs. If you think other people might do the work, then the tendency is to coast a bit, even if it’s just offering up ideas.
Social anxiety is another reason. Group situations can be intimidating, especially if you think your opinion or idea might not be well received. Despite the mantra that all ideas are allowed, we know that on some level these ideas are being judged. If you have even the slightest inkling that your idea may be mocked by your peers, or judged negatively by your manager, you might just avoid sharing.
Those less vocal people, including introverts, are also less inclined to compete with the louder group members, especially with larger groups. In fact, research done by Leigh Thompson, Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, “in a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60 percent of the talking. Increase the size of the group, and the problem only gets worse.”
Another byproduct of this particularly vocal group is the concept of anchoring, wherein the first ideas offered up generally become the focus of the session. The process is summed up nicely in this Fast Company article which references another Northwestern professor: “Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation,” Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. “They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem.”
Production blocking is another issue mentioned in this Harvard Business Review article. Essentially, group brainstorming runs into a bottleneck in that only so many people can offer ideas or opinions at a time. If you have a larger group, it’s inevitable that not everyone will get a chance to contribute. The bigger a group, the fewer ideas per person.
An Alternative to Brainstorming: Brainwriting
A much better approach than the rambunctious process of brainstorming, is the comparatively tranquil process of brainwriting, which is attributed to UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus. It entails those participating in a session to write down a list of ideas prior to getting together, then adhering to a system wherein every member has a chance to read through his or her list prior to everyone chiming in with individual opinions.
Another modification is one recommended by professor Thompson who suggests having participants write down ideas on cards which are subsequently posted to the wall and read without regard to who wrote them. This effectively mitigates internal biases toward particularly vocal or influential team members. In terms of productivity, “Thompson found that brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups.” [source]
So the next time you want to come up with some new ideas for your company, start with some brainwriting, then, after you’ve rounded up all the ideas generated, you can move on to a lively discussion—cue the extraverts! Also, while brainwriting results in a larger volume of ideas, and more out-of-the-box ones, they almost always have to be reviewed and refined to come up with a real winner, which is often a hybrid of a couple ideas. This discussion period is great for extraverts to vocalize their thoughts.
Good old fashioned brainstorming may have energizing effects for particular team members, or provide a good option when you’re looking to do a less formalized idea-session, so the effectiveness of brainwriting doesn’t mean you need dump the brainstorming process outright. However, if you’re chasing a truly game-changing idea, it may not be the most effective strategy.
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