Have you ever sat through a fruitless brainstorming session and wondered—who came up with this, anyways? It’s strange to imagine, but the concept of “brainstorming” was technically brainstormed by someone nearly a century ago. That someone was Alex F. Osborn, the accredited father of brainstorming and a passionate advertising executive who set out to transform how companies cultivated new ideas.
Even today, the philosophies set out in Osborn’s groundbreaking book entitled Your Creative Power have come to define how businesses across the globe conceive of new strategies and solutions.
Unfortunately for Osborn—and the rest of us who’ve lumbered through countless group ideation sessions throughout our scholarly and professional lives—studies clearly show that brainstorming doesn’t work. At least, not the way we’re currently doing it.
Where Brainstorming Goes Wrong
In the average group brainstorming session, most of us follow a set of well-established rules (many of which were actually chartered by Osborn in his book):
- Judgment and criticism are barred
- Wildness of ideas is encouraged
- Large quantity of ideas is desirable
- Combining and building off ideas is encouraged
These rules reveal several assumptions that have become deeply engrained in our cultural psyche. First, most of us believe that two heads are better than one, and that collaborating as a group allows us to bounce ideas off one another. Second, we presume that if you ban criticism within these groups, it will encourage greater creativity because people won’t fear judgment for spouting unpolished, crazy ideas.
Unfortunately, numerous studies (including ones conducted by Osborn himself) show us that almost none of these long-revered brainstorming rules lead to a greater quantity or quality of ideas.
In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, professor Keith Sawyer recounts a Yale study conducted by Osborn in 1958. Male students were broken into groups and given several creative puzzles to solve. As a control, Osborn asked the same number of students work on the puzzles by themselves. The students working alone came up with two times as many solutions as the groups did, and the solo students’ solutions were rated as more “feasible” and “effective” by an independent panel of judges. Why is it that people come up with more and better ideas when they work on problems alone?
Consider your last brainstorming session. You may have noticed that, by and large, the majority of the ideas came from the more extroverted members of the team. null And for those who do participate, there are still limitations to expression.
I manage a team of content creators, including video producers, writers, editors and other creatives; they are an outspoken team, and by all accounts they should be even more imaginative than the average individual. However, whenever I hold a brainstorming session with the purpose of “thinking outside of the box,” we instead tend to rehash, reword and build off existing ideas.
Sound familiar? There is a reason for this.
Studies show that that many participants of a brainstorming session either consciously or subconsciously feel pressured to go along with the dominant idea or pattern of thinking. This psychological tendency, called collaborative fixation, inherently leads to conformity of ideas and reduces the possibility of original solutions.
How to Cultivate Better Ideas
So how can we begin healing this broken system of ideation?
One way to optimize your brainstorming is to ignore the traditional limit on criticism and open your session up to a little healthy debate. Charlan Nemeth, a Berkeley professor, found in a series of studies in 2003 that criticism can enhance the quality and quantity of viable creative ideas.
Nemeth asked a team of students to come up with solutions to a problem without criticizing one another, and asked another group to brainstorm freely but also be willing to critique one another. The team that was encouraged to scrutinize came up with twenty percent more creative ideas than the others did.
You may fear that conflict is bad for morale, but it turns out that an environment of light dissent can spark greater engagement with other’s viewpoints, and forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own ideas. Remember to lay a respectful groundwork; make sure all criticism is constructive and debates never get personal. In the right environment, opposition can lead to greater ingenuity.
For those looking to steer clear of dispute, a cognitive psychologist named Dr. Tony McCaffrey proposes another, more cooperative solution. McCaffrey, who’s spent years studying human creativity, aptly observes in the Harvard Business Review that brainstorming “doesn’t work because sharing ideas one at a time, by talking no less, is incredibly inefficient.” So he poses this question: “Why do we need to talk in the first place?”
While the traditional brainstorming has always involved a room full of collaborators blurting out ideas, McCaffrey proposes a more silent approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. You start brainswarming by placing a goal or problem at the top of a white board, then listing the resources available to meet these problems at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end.
McCaffrey has found that natural “top-down” thinkers will begin refining the goal, while “bottom-up” thinkers will either add more resources or analyze how resources can be used to solve problems. The magic happens in the middle, where these two factions connect. To get a more visual demonstration of brainswarming, see the video here.
In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, many companies continue to brainstorm solutions in crowded conference rooms, filling up white boards with sticky notes and mind-mapping trees. While traditional brainstorming methods are great for producing a lot of ideas, it’s time to start shifting your focus to methods that foster better and more useful ones.