Are We Brainstorming the Wrong Way?

"Without great solitude, no serious work is possible." - Pablo Picasso

In open-plan advertising offices, conference rooms, and design firms everywhere, employees are being encouraged to gather together and reach inside their noggins to pull out the most original and creative ideas for good brainstorming sessions.

Turns out, decades of psychology research have shown that traditional brainstorming may not be the best way to innovate. On the contrary, collaborating in such ways yields less quality ideas than working in solitude and later meeting to share.

Are We Brainstorming the Right Way?

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How the Brainstorm was Born

In the late 1940s, an advertising partner by the name of Alex Osborn came up with the fresh concept:

- Tackle a common objective by having members meet in a group to create an unrestricted "storm" of as many ideas as possible, regardless of how ridiculous.

- As long as the session is free of criticism, the system should work successfully.

- Osborn's book, Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving, went on to become an instant bestseller and is used in countless organizations today. Unfortunately, the inevitable social forces in human nature prevent his method from being perfect.

The 5 Biggest Problems with Groupthink

1. Social Loafing:
When individuals get too comfortable in a group, they may show less of an effort and sit back while responsibility is diffused among more active members.

2. Social Matching:
In large group settings, such as meetings, members have an instinctive tendency to conform with their peers. Without debate or dissent, people don't question perspectives and come up with less original concepts as a group.

3. Production Blocking:
When only one single speaker expresses their idea, it creates "production blocks," where the person speaking inevitably blocks the production of ideas by other participants who may forget or decide that their ideas aren't good enough.

4. Lack of Attention:
The larger the group and the longer the meeting, the less participants will be highly engaged in the discussion.

5. Fear of Criticism or Rejection:
If an individual's ideas are perceived to be too unpopular to a group that is evaluating them-often called "evaluating apprehension" - they're more reluctant to come forward and end up generating less ideas.

The Proof:

Fewer Ideas Are Generated

Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University conducted several experiments to test group brainstorming versus individual ideation. What they ultimately found was that even when the same number of people were involved, those who worked by themselves to generate ideas come up with more than the brainstorming groups.

And Fewer Good Ideas. At That.

A separate report by INSEAD and Wharton business schools tested brainstorming in groups against a hybrid of independent and traditional brainstorming and discovered that the latter was more successful.

The Challenge:

The groups were tasked to come up with new dorm concepts for the student market.

The Experiment:

Group 1, Group Brainstormers: The team gathered together in a room to generate ideas for 30 minutes. They then took 5 minutes to pick the best 5 ideas.

Group 2, Independent Brainstormers: Each person had 10 minutes to generate an idea. After 20 minutes, the group came together to discuss the ideas. The group then had 5 minutes to pick the best 5 ideas.

The Results:

The study, judged by a panel of Wharton MBA students and regular college students, found that the hybrid independent brainstorming group received 25% more points when it came to business value. The group earned 35% more points when it came to how much people wanted to buy the products.

Tips to Effectively Brainstorm

There are ways to combine the best of group and independent brainstorming.

1. Independently Prepare: Allowing participants 10 to 15 minutes to think autonomously and to do individual research on the top of concern before convening to discuss.

2. Set a Goal: Set a goal for how many ideas you would like to generate. Researchers have found that this motivates members to trigger more and better ideas.

3. Have Meeting Facilitators: To prevent issues such as productivity blocking or social loafing, leaders should be used to help guide the process and reinforce the ground rules.

4. Avoid Criticism: There will be those who are apprehensive to share their ideas in a group setting, so try to be open to all contributions and avoid inviting those who are intimidating to the others because they may stifle the flow of ideas.

5. Encourage Competition: Having members debate on a topic not only generates more original ideas, it maintains engagement among members.

6. Try Collaboration Apps: Recently, online social networks and collaboration apps have become powerful tools to address a physical gap that exists for remote workers. In addition to the brainstorming process being available to all members, participants can effectively communicate their ideas without the fear of "speaking" up or being ignored.


John Gastil. "The Group in Society." 2010; The New York Times. "Rise of the New Groupthink." 2012. The New York Times; INSEAD and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Idea Generation and the Quality of The Best Idea." 2009; Applied Cognitive Psychology; University of Texas at Arlington; Texas A&M University