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Mythbuster… is brainstorming really the best way to generate ideas?

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:

  1. generate as many ideas as you can; 
  2. prioritise the unusual or original ideas; 
  3. then combine and refine all the ideas generated; and finally
  4. 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.

  1. It starts with people working on the problem alone, jotting down their own ideas. 
  2. Then, they shift into group mode, to share ideas and build on ideas already suggested. 
  3. Then people move back to working individually.  
  4. 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 

Harvard Business Review, January–February 2017 article: Are you solving the right problems? 

Harvard Business Review, May 2017 article: Your team is brainstorming all wrong 

Harvard Business Review, March–April 2018 article: Better brainstorming 

Harvard Business Review, April 2013 video: Esape from brainstorm island 

Inventium May 2015 article: A scientifically better alternative to brainstorming 

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Andrew Gasmen
Andrew Gasmen
4 years ago

Hi John, It’s nice to have this series of videos that you initiated in your group “Enablers of Change”. I am learning and appreciate very much the transcription of it, because at times I have a problem understanding certain accents of Australian English (I’m a Filipino and used to American English). Now let me join the discussion. With regard to this topic on brainstorming, I wonder if there is another name or calling to the suggested alternatives that you discussed. In my view, you are just proposing a more systematic approach to it, then as people meet and discuss after… Read more »

4 years ago

Hi John and Denise,
Do you have any time frames that work best when people are working on the problem alone? eg, is a week too long and people never get around to it, and is a day too short to come up with ideas?

Thank you

4 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Hi Laura! That’s a good question! I think giving people a week’s notice ahead of a meeting where you will be doing some idea generation is ideal, then the day before giving a gentle reminder asking them to write a couple of thoughts down would work. This helps those people who need a bit of time to reflect, as well as those of us who leave things until the last minute! I’d also say – experiment – and let us know what works for you!
Hope that helps!

Jeanette Gellard
4 years ago

Brainstorming exercises aren’t always managed well either which exacerbates challenges of engaging introverts and extroverts and developing a broad range of ideas. One of the brainstorm approaches I’ve used successfully follows a similar structure to the one you’ve suggested. I took it from the book “Gamestorming – a playbook for innovators, rulebreakers and changemakers” by D Gray, S Brown & J Macanugo. They call it 3-12-3 Brainstorm. 3 minutes: generating ideas – Participants get a stack of index cards and spend 3 minutes thinking about the characteristics of the topic at hand and writing as many down as possible on… Read more »

4 years ago

Thanks Jeanette! We agree!
The brainstorm approach you outline is a great idea – a great way of helping people explore ideas (and getting everyone involved). A great book suggestion too! I’ve just got a copy of it and so it’s on my reading list next. I look forward to getting more ideas from it!

4 years ago

Great blog! Your suggested approach is reminiscent of a method I’ve been using for some time. I’ve called it Think – Pair – Share which will be familiar with most primary school teachers in NZ. I’ve combined about 3 versions to come up with some ‘rules’ (guidelines). The key here is the interposition of sharing your thoughts with only one other person before going wider. This provides a very safe way for shy, modest, or otherwise under-confident people (I wont label them as introverts) to express their views before sharing with a wider group. It also keeps the people on… Read more »

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
4 years ago
Reply to  lab

Thanks Lab! Think – Pair – Share is such a great method (I’ve shared and seen it used in a range of places now)! People really appreciate having some reflection time before sharing safely. And as someone who appreciates the chance to express their view before sharing with a wider group, it makes it such an effective way of getting discussion (and learning!) going.

David Jago
1 year ago

Thanks for this update on your first article! As always, I appreciate the supporting references. You have also stimulated some great comments. The original Osborn work was a breakthrough in its day. And as you show, things have moved on… A few further thoughts: Brainstorming and ideation both fit into the Divergence phase of a session. This is the second of five phases: Opening, Divergence, Emergence, Convergence and Closing. Opening both creates connection among participants and frames the task involved. Powerful Divergence needs both the opening foundation and a clear, simple, open-ended focussing question. It is always possible to loop… Read more »

Mal Cock
Mal Cock
2 months ago

Thanks for this….. I like brain storming myself, but have had little success with groups that are not confident. I will give your suggestion a go as it is easy to make the change.

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