Brainstorming Reloaded

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Why brainstorming is ineffective and how to fix it.

Brainstorming was once thought a fantastic way for groups to generate new ideas. Although not as fashionable as it once was, brainstorming is still frequently used in business and, often inadvertently, for all sorts of personal decisions; people happily brainstorm for holiday destinations, restaurants and even new careers.

Brainstorming certainly looks like a great way of dealing with some of the problems associated with decision-making and creativity in groups, such as groupthink and people’s failure to share information effectively. By suspending evaluation, encouraging a relaxed atmosphere and quantity over quality, the brainstorming session is supposed to foster creativity.

But now we know that brainstorming doesn’t actually work that well. Experiment after experiment has shown that people in brainstorming sessions produce fewer and lower quality ideas than those working alone (Furnham, 2000). Here’s why:

  • Social loafing: people slack off to a frightening degree in certain types of group situations like brainstorming.
  • Evaluation apprehension: although evaluation isn’t allowed in a traditional brainstorming session, everyone knows others are scrutinising their input.
  • Production blocking: while one person is talking the others have to wait. They then forget or dismiss their ideas, which consequently never see the light of day.

So if groups need to generate new ideas, new connections between old ideas and new ways of seeing the world, how should they proceed? The answer is that brainstorming needs a tweak.

Brainstorming reloaded

Inspiration for ways to get around these problems comes from the research on electronic brainstorming. Gallupe and Cooper (1993) found that electronically mediated brainstormers generated more high quality ideas than face-to-face brainstomers.

In this research brainstormers typed in their ideas to a computer which also displayed other people’s ideas at the same time. This rather neatly gets around the social loafing and production blocking problems.

These ideas can be used to motivate face-to-face brainstormers to produce better results (from Furnham, 2000):

  • People should be encouraged to list ideas before coming to brainstorming sessions.
  • The number of ideas produced by each person should be monitored.
  • Problems should be broken down and group members should brainstorm components.
  • Groups should take breaks from each other.
  • High standards should be set for the number of ideas.

But why bother to try and ‘fix’ brainstorming at all? Why not just send people off individually to generate ideas if this is more efficient? The answer is because of its ability to build consensus by giving participants the feeling of involvement in the process. People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

Also it emerges that groups do have a natural talent, which is the evaluation of ideas, rather than their creation. The conclusion of the psychological literature, therefore, is that people should be encouraged to generate ideas on their own and meetings should be used to evaluate these ideas. The same rule applies in business as in your personal life. Generating ideas about where to go on holiday, what to write that new sitcom about, what question your research should address, and so on, are best done alone.

About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.