Today we’re doing our first mythbusters session! Let’s not just accept something because it’s been said so many times before that most people just believe it. We’re going to delve deeper and explore the facts, taking an evidence-based approach. So, let’s explore brainstorming, and see if it is indeed the best way to generate ideas!
We’ve run the odd brainstorming session and have sat through many sessions as a participant as well. The most commonly used approach is to get with a bunch of people and shout out your great ideas, and try to build on other people’s ideas. But where did this actually come from and is it really the best way for generating ideas?
This approach to brainstorming actually dates back to 1939 when an advertising executive, Alex Osborn was looking for better ways to help his team be creative with their ad campaigns. He ran what he called ‘organised ideation’ sessions with about a dozen of his team at a time, and discovered a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas produced. Later on, the participants started calling these ‘brainstorm sessions’, which obviously caught on. It was then made popular by his 1953 book, Applied imagination.
In his book he laid out four rules:
- generate as many ideas as you can;
- prioritise the unusual or original ideas;
- then combine and refine all the ideas generated; and finally
- avoid any criticism or negative talk during the activity.
That was all well and good, but in 1991 the cracks began to show when Brian Mullen and a couple of other authors published a paper in the Basic and applied social psychology journal. It showed that in general, brainstorming groups were significantly less productive than control groups, in terms of both quantity and quality. Ouch!
Then in 2015 the Harvard Business Review starting publishing some other damning articles, such as the one titled ‘Why group brainstorming is a waste of time’.
It talked about:
- social loafing, the tendency for people to free ride;
- social anxiety, where people worry about other people’s’ perception of their ideas;
- regression to the mean, which is apparently well known in sporting circles, where if you practice with someone less competent than yourself, your competence level declines – a slightly depressing thought! And finally,
- production blocking, where, as you can only put forward one idea at a time, the number of suggestions reaches a plateau with six or seven members and declines as group size increases!
It was later in 2015 that John read the article by Inventium, called ‘A scientifically better alternative to brainstorming’. It outlined an alternative process, which has four steps.
- It starts with people working on the problem alone, jotting down their own ideas.
- Then, they shift into group mode, to share ideas and build on ideas already suggested.
- Then people move back to working individually.
- They then finally come together to share any further ideas.
John has used this process and found it was actually really successful and better still, the participants found it far more engaging than the traditional brainstorming session. It seems that extroverts love brainstorming, but for good old introverts (i.e. us!), having time to think on your own works really well.
So the next time you want to generate ideas, we challenge you to test this alternative approach! And tell us how it went by adding a comment below. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, then take the time to tell a friend or colleague, so they too can join the conversation.
Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson & Eduardo Salas (1991) Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12:1, 3-23, DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp1201_1
Harvard Business Review, March 2015 article: Why group brainstorming is a waste of time https://hbr.org/2015/03/why-group-brainstorming-is-a-waste-of-time
Harvard Business Review, January–February 2017 article: Are you solving the right problems? https://hbr.org/2017/01/are-you-solving-the-right-problems
Harvard Business Review, May 2017 article: Your team is brainstorming all wrong https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong
Harvard Business Review, March–April 2018 article: Better brainstorming https://hbr.org/2018/03/better-brainstorming
Harvard Business Review, April 2013 video: Esape from brainstorm island https://hbr.org/video/2363556828001/escape-from-brainstorm-island
Inventium May 2015 article: A scientifically better alternative to brainstorming https://www.inventium.com.au/a-scientifically-better-alternative-to-brainstorming/