On brainstorming: not best for quality or pace

Many of us love a good brainstorm, giddily bouncing ideas about the place to generate lists of options and alternatives. And when we’re not doing it with each other, we’re corralling others around flip-charts and asking them to share their newly-formed cognitions.

Leaving aside the exclusivity risk that can come for this approach – the description above will have made many among us shudder with horror – the key problem is that it doesn’t work.

The research in this area repeatedly shows brainstorming to be far less effective than working alone, limiting its value to the positive effects of social interaction.

So what should we be doing instead?

In a nutshell:

  • Research shows unequivocally that brainstorming groups produce fewer and poorer quality ideas than the same number of individuals working alone
  • The effectiveness of brainstorming is undermined by three phenomena from psychology: social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking
  • Slightly different group practices, and clever use of technology, can overcome these problems and help us achieve quality at pace

The history of brainstorming

Brainstorming comes from the Mad Men of advertising in 1950s New York. Coined first by marketeer Alex Osborn (1957), it’s easy to see its attractions, especially compared to the fragmented work practices that came before it. In short, this democratic freewheeling of ideas, unhindered by judgement or hierarchy, was seen as a good way to overcome the premature evaluation of ideas that was felt to be a block to creativity.

In reality, its advantages are probably limited to meeting a team’s social needs, improving decision acceptance (because people feel they had a voice), and reducing focus on any one individual.

The science

In 1993, psychologists Paulus and Dzindolet conducted their famous ‘thumbs experiment’. They gave people twenty-five minutes to list the pros and cons of having an extra thumb on each hand. The results were surprising. Groups of four people working alone produced an average of 77 ideas, compared to a mere 45 ideas from brainstorming groups.

Meanwhile, Gallupe and Cooper (1993) found that electronically mediated brainstormers generated more high quality ideas than face-to-face brainstomers. In other words, pooling ideas from a distance via technology works better than squishing people together in all their humanity.

Why? Three phenomena hold the key to understanding this:

  • Social loafing (and the sucker effect): It’s too easy to sit back and let others do the work – or to feel like a sucker for contributing when you suspect others of shirking
  • Evaluation apprehension: This one’s easy – we don’t speak up for fear of looking dumb
  • Production blocking: We have to take turns and lose our train of thought

In summary:

The broad conclusion is that talented, motivated people should be encouraged to work alone, especially when time pressures are high. When people do come together, time should be spent on the evaluation of ideas not their generation.

Also consider the following recommendations:


  • Ask people to generate ideas before coming to brainstorming sessions
  • Set high standards for the number of ideas to be produced, and monitor each person’s contributions
  • Break problems down into smaller chunks and brainstorm these
  • Give people roles, perhaps using Edward de Bono’s 6 thinking hats
  • Take breaks from each other
  • Use technology (e.g. Teams)

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“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”

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