Mythbusting: brainstorming doesn't work

Posted 18 May 2011 by

Picture the scene: a facilitator with hipster glasses and interesting hair, standing at the whiteboard, lots of post-it notes, frantically trying to keep up with verbose team members as they shout out arrant nonsense (and the occasional good idea), bouncing thoughts off each other and building on each others’ concepts.

“A banana!”

“With wheels.”

“A banana with wheels – but… it’s purple!”

“That’s a wrap, everyone - I think we’ve cracked it.

If you work in parts of business where ideas are needed (and who doesn’t?), you have no doubt participated in a brainstorming session, something designed to draw unusual ideas from participants and thus increase the scope and angle of solutions available to the business.

Common wisdom is that this kind of meeting will generate more ideas than individuals working alone, and will make a team more creative.

But, does it really?

Alas, no: recent research* shows that in fact brainstorming can lead to a smaller number of ideas than alternative approaches.

It’s not that generating of off-the-wall ideas that isn’t effective – it’s the methodology of brainstorming that I’m dubious about.

Studies** have shown that this kind of brainstorm tends to end up with the contribution of the first person to speak being the one accepted. Simple as that.

It is no surprise, of course, that this person is also likely to be the most assertive in the group – and often the most powerful too – which can give their ideas a triple whammy.

Despite how free and empowered it may make participants feel, brainstorming is still a social situation, where conformity, confidence and power all step in to mess up creativity and promote the ‘top dog’s’ ideas. And conformity tends to force more unusual ideas out fairly early in the process – unless of course they are championed by the top dog!

Moreover, people with introverted personalities often like to consider the issues at hand, and work on a problem internally before presenting it. Shouty brainstorm sessions can often suppress ideas from this half of the population. They simply can’t get a word in edgeways. But their ideas are no less creative, positive and unusual than those of their more extraverted counterparts.

So what method does allow the more unusual ideas to flourish, independent of the contributor’s confidence and status?

What’s been shown to be more effective than the ‘traditional’ brainstorm scenario is to have people write down as many ideas a possible independently before a meeting, and then to bring these to the meeting for systematic discussion and consideration.

This method allows the less vocal group members to have their contributions considered alongside those of ‘the usual suspects’.

Of course, in order to remove the potential for the same bias arising again, the group must make a prior commitment to review all the ideas that have been brought to the table. Contributions could even be made anonymously to completely avoid issues of hierarchy.

Once ideas are in place – without the bias of the old method, users of the MBTI might be familiar with the “zig-zag” problem-solving model that provides a structure for a group to work through to ensure that all ideas are fully considered. In this way the group works through data assimilation (Sensing), visionary themes and connections (iNtuition), critical analysis (Thinking), and the impact on people (Feeling), to reach a rounded conclusion.

Additionally, the Innovation Potential Indicator provides a structured understanding of everyone’s individual innovation style – which can inform how best to ensure that each individual’s contribution is valued.

So next time you’re in a meeting and the ideas appear to be flying, watch the dynamic of the group. Is anyone not speaking up? If you’re the facilitator, ask them if they have anything they want to say. And if you’re organising a brainstorm yourself, why not adopt an idea that generates more and better ideas than the method that many businesses are currently using.

*Stroebe & Lodewijkx, 2006

**Mojzisch & Schulz-Hardt, 2010

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