Brainstorming doesn’t work.

At least, not the way most companies do it.

And that is because most brainstorming sessions are not designed to deliver results for the company, only for the facilitator.

You may have seen the four basic rules of brainstorming, taken from Alex Osborn’s Applied Imagination:

The Four Rules of Brainstorming:

  1. Go for Quantity
  2. Withhold criticism
  3. Welcome wild ideas
  4. Combine and improve ideas

These rules themselves are not bad. In fact, in the hands of an effective facilitator, they can be very productive.

However, the issue lies with the way that brainstorming sessions are usually structured: as a group activity.

Significant amounts of research have proven that individuals working alone will produce a larger quantity of ideas, which are also of a higher quality.

This was first seen back in a 1958 study by Yale university’s D.W. Taylor et al, and backed up by several other studies such as this review by Diehl and Stroebe cited more than 2,178 times (along with follow up articles trying to explain the phenomenon in 1991 and 1994), and as summarised by a meta-analysis of several other research studies.

Why are groups worse at brainstorming than individuals working alone?

There are several reasons:

  1. Multiple people can generate ideas in parallel instead of in sequence: If a group is trying to generate ideas together, people need to speak one at a time, listen, and then judge who will speak next. This means only one person can be active at any time. In contrast, when working individually, all members can work and generate ideas simultaneously.
  2. The brain cannot do convergent and divergent thinking at the same time: In Prof George Land’s TED Talk, he showcases research which shows that as we get older, children are taught to immediately criticise the ideas as they are develop. As we know, all ideas start out imperfect, so that makes most people unable to get past the initial hurdle and develop ideas further because they were immediately rejected.
  3. The first idea you hear contaminates your thinking: Humans are trained to react to external stimuli by giving it our focus. This goes all the way back to our evolution where it helped us to sense danger. Because of this, our brain is easily distracted, and hearing someone talk about their idea will require your brain to focus and prevent it from generating its own ideas.
  4. We defer to authority: When there is someone more senior than you in the room, it is common to defer to them and agree with their ideas, due to the fact that they are often experienced as well as the fact that challenging a senior stakeholder may feel dangerous. This is why often groups just accept the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (the HiPPO).
  5. There is usually one or two loud Extroverts who dominate the conversations: This is an issue for people who are more introverted and may be more effective and comfortable taking time to generate ideas individually first.
  6. We are afraid of having our ideas judged: Due to the fact that our initial ideas are imperfect, many people feel afraid that if they let other people know about them, they will see all of the flaws in the idea, and that they will not only judge the idea but also the person who proposed it.
  7. We actually feel like we are all contributing, but this is an illusion: There is a cognitive phenomenon called the “Illusion of Productivity“, where people have the sensation that during group brainstorming, they contributed more than they actually did and take credit for a disproportionately high amount of the ideas, reinforced through incorrect cultural wisdom that groups are an effective means of generating ideas.

In contrast, most of these issues are not experienced when people are given time to write their ideas down first, instead of presenting them in front of the group.

The one thing which will immediately improve your brainstorming sessions

As I outline in the video above, the one thing you can do in order to quickly improve your brainstorming session performance is to give individuals time to write down their ideas first, before then coming together as a group to find commonality between everyone’s ideas, assess the implications, and then refine and improve the best solutions.

This technique is called Brainwriting, and I’ve used it many times to help groups not only generate more ideas but allow teams with all sorts of individuals work more effectively together.

If you were to implement that single change in your team, you will instantly see more ideas of a higher quality be identified.

If you want to find out more ways to improve the effectiveness of your brainstorming sessions, then I would recommend you check out my interview with Bryan Mattimore, who has led over 1,000 brainstorming sessions, which is available as part of the Insider Secrets of Innovation and Creativity package.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.