Brainstorming? Think Again.

As you probably know, brainstorming is a group activity in which everyone generates as many ideas as possible without criticism or negative feedback. The approach was made famous by Alex Osborn, a partner at the advertising agency B.B.D.O., in his 1948 book Your Creative Power. As he describes it, a group of people use “the brain to storm a creative problem” and thereby solve it.

My experiences with brainstorming have been quite different. As a writer, I’ve worked with many marketing and advertising professionals who used brainstorming to spark creative thinking. However, it didn’t seem to work. Most of us weren’t very good at it; we couldn’t seem to stop expressing our opinions. Sometimes, the effort to restrain ourselves was a full-time job, leaving us with little room for idea generation. I began to notice that the most productive sessions were those in which we tossed ideas back and forth, refining them through give and take. If we came to meetings already armed with ideas, the group often made dramatic progress.

As it turns out, scientists were already debunking brainstorming. “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University.1 Some studies have also demonstrated that debate – not a criticism-free environment – fuels idea generation. In a 2003 study,2 participants were divided into three groups. No instructions were given to the first group. The second group was told to use standard brainstorming rules. Members of the third group were instructed to use brainstorming techniques, but were also given permission to critique each other. The researchers reported that the group of critiquers generated more ideas.

Meanwhile, other studies have shown that brainstorming results in a kind of “groupthink.” In 2010,3 researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises reduced the number of ideas that were suggested. They also said that brainstormers tended to become fixated on other people’s ideas, which eventually led to conformity. Furthermore, when participants took a break, giving them time to think for awhile, they came up with more ideas.

“Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” says organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham.4 Yet, brainstorming continues to live on in corporate America. In my opinion, we’d all be better served by a deliberative process – one in which we come together, armed with ideas, eager to share our opinions, and ready for a robust debate. I hope that one day the accumulated evidence will convince brainstorming advocates to think again.


1Lehrer, Jonah, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012.

2Nemeth, Charlan J., Bernard Personnaz, Marie Personnaz, and Jack A. Goncalo, “The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries,” European Journal of Social Psychology, 2004.

3Kohn, Nicholas W. and Steven M. Smith, “Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2010.

4Cain, Susan, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” The New York Times, January 13, 2012.


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