Brainstorming is not enough

Regarded as the benchmark method for generating ideas in a group, brainstorming in reality often produces disappointing results. 

The technique of brainstorming was invented at the end of the 1940s by Alex Osborn, co-founder of the advertising agency BBDO in New York. He saw this as the perfect group creativity technique. The rules are simple: participants have to express as many ideas as possible by reacting to the ideas of other members of the group. Members of the group are not allowed to criticize proposals made so as to prevent people from worrying about negative reactions and from keeping quiet as a result.

During a brainstorming session, the emphasis then is placed on quantity rather than quality. Contributors are asked to give free rein to their imagination, not censure any thought, even the most far-fetched, and use the association method. Given the word “blue” for example, participants have to say anything this term evokes for them. 

A method which is in reality often ineffective

The problem with brainstorming is that it doesn’t seem to actually work. In 1958, research conducted at Yale University illustrated this conclusion. A cohort of 48 students was divided into 12 groups and asked to find ideas in a series of cognitive problems. Another group of 48 subjects was given the same task, to be completed on their own. The results are enlightening: the subjects who worked on their own found twice as many responses as the brainstorming groups. The solutions they came up with were also much more “doable” and “effective”, in other words, of better quality.

Numerous studies subsequently reproduced this experiment, but with an even larger number of participants and different types of cognitive problems. They all seem to reach the same conclusion: it is better to work alone and then pool ideas in order to critique and thus refine them. See also:

Why doesn’t brainstorming work?

The ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the laziness it engenders in its participants: if everyone is right and if all ideas are valid, why struggle to come up with innovative solutions or think outside the box? In addition, the association method often produces disappointing results. When questioned about the ideas evoked by the word “blue”, people often say “sky”, followed by “ocean” and “green”. Our language is full of unhelpful clichés which we tend to reproduce in brainstorming sessions.

Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 and link below.


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Last modification 24.10.2018

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