Brainstorming: It doesn’t work. But can it be useful?

The idea of “brainstorming” was first articulated by renowned ad man Alex Osborn in his 1948 bestseller Your Creative Power. Since then it’s become a widely-used technique in many consultant and manager tool kits. One of the central principles of brainstorming is to remove criticism and negative feedback. This is to supposedly allow people to contribute ideas (no matter how far fetched or seemingly ridiculous they may be).

In a recent New Yorker article, “Group think, The brainstorming myth”, Jonah Lehrer examined some of the testing of the brainstorming process and found that again and again, rather than unleashing creativity, brainstorming generates far fewer ideas than the same number of people working on their own and later pooling their ideas. Studies seem to show that debate and criticism actually stimulate creativity – not stifle it.

Lehrer draws from a range of sources, including a study of teams putting together Broadway musicals, and Harvard Medical School research focussed on the impact of physical proximity in research groups. He concludes that the key to unleashing creativity rests on getting the group composition right, then enabling the interaction of different perspectives.

Why then is brainstorming still so popular? I would argue that part of it is certainly the “feel good” factor that people get from inhabiting a “criticism free zone”. As a tool, used carefully, it may still serve as a useful technique for a range of reasons not articulated in the article.

Employees who feel good are more likely to contribute discretionary effort. When group dynamics or power structures don’t allow for people to express particular viewpoints, it might act as a circuit breaker to free up communication. It could be useful in team building – perhaps to empower marginalised employees. But as a general tool for uncovering solutions to everyday work problems, it may be time to re-consider other alternatives.

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