Is Brainstorming Brain Dead?

I know this will be an unpopular point of view but I’ve come to the conclusion that brainstorming is a bad idea that doesn’t work.

Brainstorming advocates claim groups of people are more likely to find solutions to problems than individuals working alone. The idea was popularized in the 1950’s by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn who was frustrated by his employees’ inability to develop creative ideas for ad campaigns.   According to his book Applied Imagination, Osborn increased overall group creativity by encouraging the rapid generation of ideas and reducing the creative inhibitions among members.  His brainstorming mantra was “reach for quantity and defer judgment.”

In the name of brainstorming, participants are asked to generate as many ideas as possible, favoring sheer volume over specific solutions.  Participants ignore traditional constraints (such as budget or feasibility) and look for unusual approaches or perspectives.  The claim is this approach improves the odds of producing a radical and effective solution.

Over my career, I’ve seen little evidence which supports this claim.  Group brainstorming sessions might produce a higher volume of ideas than a single person would but groups don’t produce higher qualityideas.  A small number of people often dominate the conversation and group think almost always happens as a result of peer pressure.  In my experience, the most creative ideas have come from individuals working alone.

It turns out my (somewhat irrational) bias is confirmed by science. More than a dozen research studies show that individuals perform better than groups inboth quality and quantity, and the performance of brainstorming groups gets worse as size increases.  As organizational psychologist Adrian Furnhamquipped:

…business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone.

The failure of brainstorming doesn’t mean that group collaboration can’t work.  In the last few years SAP has had tremendous success with design thinking to spur practical creativity for solutions. Design thinking explicitlybalances desirability (what people want), technical feasibility, and economic viability. Unlike other approaches, design thinking starts with what is supposed to be achieved (the goal) rather than what needs to be changed (the problem).

This solution-based approach appeals to me because it mirrors my performance management philosophy.  Traditional brainstorming encourages a higher volume of ideas which improves activity-focused ego metrics. Design thinking focuses on the outcome we are trying to achieve: a solution people want that can be implemented in a cost-effective manner.

Now, that’s using your brain.

It’s also a non-brainer to follow me on twitter @jbecher