Brainstorming: Research Shows It’s Ineffective

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What is brainstorming and is it effective? What does brainstorming research say about this collaborative strategy?

Brainstorming is based on the theory that groups come up with better ideas than individuals working independently. However, brainstorming research has shown that this exercise is ineffective.

Keep reading to see what brainstorming research says about why brainstorm sessions don’t always work.

Brainstorming and Brainstorming Research

Brainstorming in a group, another favorite of the Groupthink or team-oriented culture, also fails to deliver more creative or better ideas.

Alex Osborn, an advertising man and author in the 1940s and ‘50s, came up with the idea of brainstorming because he was concerned that employees at his ad agency weren’t producing very creative material. He believed this was because they were afraid to share their ideas for fear of judgment, so he created a discussion process intended to remove the threat of criticism. The rules were:

  • Don’t criticize.
  • Don’t hold back.
  • The more ideas you have the better.
  • Build on others’ ideas.

With this process, Osborn believed that groups produced better ideas than people working alone. He made grandiose claims for it and other companies picked up the idea. Brainstorming soon was incorporated into the business culture of teamwork.

However, it doesn’t actually work as advertised. In 1963, a study of mining company employees by a psychology professor showed that people working on their own, whether they were executives or research scientists, produced more ideas than those working in groups and the ideas were of the same or better quality.

Brainstorming research over the last forty years has also underscored that brainstorming doesn’t produce better ideas. Among the findings: idea-generating performance gets worse as brainstorming groups get bigger. For instance, groups of nine produce fewer and worse ideas than groups of six; groups of six do worse than groups of four. Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham concluded that based on the scientific evidence, businesses would be crazy to use brainstorming. When you want efficiency or creativity, he said, it’s better to let people work alone.

According to brainstorming research, there are three reasons brainstorming doesn’t work:

  • Some people stay on the sidelines and let others do all the talking.
  • Only one person can talk at a time, while others have to be silent.
  • In spite of the rules to suspend judgment, people still hold back for fear of looking stupid.

Brainstorming research has shown that group influence also can hinder discovering the best ideas: people tend to go along with others, even when they know the others are wrong, in order to fit in. In fact, the fear of rejection can be so strong that it makes us change our perceptions.

Despite the evidence against brainstorming, it remains popular. Studies show that participants usually believe their group performed much better than it actually did. The reason may be that it makes people feel connected—which may have value—but it doesn’t inspire good ideas.

Online Brainstorming

In contrast to brainstorming in a group meeting, brainstorming online can be effective.

When brainstorming online, well-managed groups are more effective than individuals at coming up with viable ideas. Unlike face-to-face brainstorming, research shows that the larger the online brainstorming group, the better it does. The same applies to online collaboration on academic research. Professors who work together online produce research that has greater impact than the work of those meeting face-to-face or working alone.

Brainstorming: Research Shows It’s Ineffective

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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