The Basic Idea
Every great idea starts with a good brainstorming session. You’ve probably participated in countless brainstorming sessions as part of school or work, to varying degrees of success. Sometimes a group brainstorm can feel productive and exciting, but other times they may feel like a waste of time. Indeed, despite the overwhelming popularity of brainstorming, research has repeatedly demonstrated that group brainstorming is inefficient – but there must be some benefits to it, right?
Brainstorming can be defined as a group creativity process of creating potential solutions to a problem – in other words, thinking of new ideas together in a small period of time. Generally, a small group of people shares ideas with each other, and one person records these ideas to evaluate later.
Creativity can seem like a process outside our control – sometimes inspiration disappears just as we need new ideas – but research has revealed certain practices that can improve the quality of our results when we brainstorm.
Theory, meet practice
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Alex Faickney Osborne, an American advertising executive, first popularized brainstorming in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Osborn described a process to generate new ideas as a group, by “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”¹ Osborn emphasized four rules for brainstorming to be effective:
- Focus on generating a large quantity of ideas
- No criticism of ideas
- Express ideas freely – encourage wild ideas
- Combine and build onto others’ ideas
The brainstorming sessions at Osborn’s advertising agency, BBDO, followed these four rules. An appointed facilitator would enforce these guidelines, oversee approximately 5-12 participants, and specify the problem being addressed. Additionally, environmental factors such as bright wall colors and inviting furniture contributed to a welcoming and open atmosphere, one in which ideas could be easily shared. A stenographer recorded the ideas spoken, and a senior executive reviewed the results of the brainstorm only after the session ended. BBDO, which had previously struggled in its profits in the 1940s, recovered and saw massive success in the 1950s – apparently, thanks to Osborn’s new creative technique. Brainstorming became widely known in the US, and by 1958, eight out of ten of America’s largest companies had adopted brainstorming into their corporate culture.¹
Following this explosion in popularity, studies began to emerge on brainstorming and its efficacy. Notably, a study from Yale University in 1958 showed that group brainstorming is less effective than individual brainstorming, posing a major challenge to Osborn’s technique.² Although some of Osborn’s original rules for brainstorming have been supported by studies, the group aspect of brainstorming has been repeatedly called into question by subsequent studies. Research often compared “nominal” groups, or the collection of ideas from people brainstorming individually, with “real” groups, which consisted of people brainstorming together. The nominal groups consistently proved more effective at generating new ideas than the real groups. For instance, a 1970 study made the same conclusions as to the Yale study, further demonstrating that as the number of people involved grows, pooling individual creative efforts becomes the superior mode of idea generation over group brainstorming.³
Nevertheless, brainstorming remains an incredibly popular creative tool for organizations – as you likely know from experience. The vast body of research on brainstorming, dating back to the 1950s, can guide groups and make the difference between a successful brainstorming session and a frustrating waste of time.
Generating new ideas and creative solutions remains a critical skill of any organization or team. As such, using insights from studies on creative processes can be transformative to our ability to produce new, high-quality ideas.
There are tons of articles on brainstorming techniques and best practices, but studies have repeatedly shown that one major way to generate high-quality ideas is to do some brainstorming alone before bringing your ideas to a group. This way, group members can freely record their ideas without social phenomena getting in the way.
Why do group settings make brainstorming less efficient? Researchers have studied the specifics of brainstorming practices that make the process often ineffective. By adjusting these parts of our approach to group creativity, we can optimize our generation of powerful ideas.
A 1987 study identified production blocking as the most significant obstacle resulting in the lower efficacy of group brainstorming as compared to individual brainstorming.⁴ Production blocking occurs when one member of a group prevents others from being productive. In brainstorming, this can occur when one group member is sharing their idea – others may lose their train of thought while listening to their colleague. People who take more time to express their ideas can exacerbate this problem by delaying others’ ability to share their thoughts. Think of that one colleague or classmate who talks and talks and talks – for long enough that you forget what you were going to say afterward. This obstacle supports using purely individual brainstorming, but also might be solved by electronic brainwriting⁵ or electronic brainstorming. In both of these techniques, a group can gather together in a shared space or online platform and share ideas by writing them, allowing others to read them as they emerge. Production blocking is decreased, as there is no limit of having one person speak at a time.
Electronic brainstorming also removes the limiting factors of the number of people and evaluation apprehension. One study found that increasing the number of people involved in a group electronic brainstorming session increased the number of quality ideas generated, even though increasing the number of participants greatly decreases the efficacy of traditional brainstorming groups.⁶ Moreover, the removal of face-to-face interaction can alleviate fears of sharing one’s ideas, or evaluation apprehension.
Brainwalking, which simply means incorporating movement into the brainstorming process, can also boost creativity. Participants can move around a room to write down different ideas or go on a walk before brainstorming. Studies have demonstrated that walking increases creativity levels by 60 percent on average.⁷
Many studies and articles argue against using traditional brainstorming, yet it persists as a near-universal activity at organizations and companies. As a result, researchers have studied why ineffective brainstorming practices persist.⁸
Two of the main reasons teams continue to use disproved brainstorming approaches are a) to increase decision acceptance, and b) to gather as many creative minds together as possible. Decision acceptance refers to team members’ support of a particular project since brainstorming together increases the likelihood that everyone will agree with the final idea. Getting everyone involved from the beginning encourages investment in the idea. The second reason – pooling resources – seems logical in that more people can offer more ideas, but production blocking and inhibitive tendencies can limit the efficacy of having many people in one brainstorming session. Without critically evaluating the success of brainstorming, it can be easy to fall back on the same inefficient creative method under the guise of a fun, team-building activity.
That said, research has identified some positive aspects of Osborn’s rules for brainstorming. A 2011 study supported Osborn’s suggestion that participants focus on the quantity of ideas rather than fewer high-quality ideas. Brainstorming groups with a goal of producing the largest quantity of ideas performed better than groups with goals of producing the highest-quality responses, a joint quality and quantity goal, and no goal at all.⁹
Additionally, Osborn picked up on social phenomena that increased creativity and productivity in group settings, namely social facilitation. Simply being surrounded by others while they come up with ideas can inspire greater creativity and efficiency. In addition to the risk of production blocking in groups, however, the influence of other people can also be an obstacle to creativity.
Our desire to cater to the views of the group may lead to similar trains of thought and subsequent ideas, otherwise known as groupthink. The lack of criticism rule can lead to poor ideas persisting for longer and inspiring others to continue down a line of thinking that might end up being useless. Groupthink occurs when a group conforms to a shared idea without critical evaluation.¹º While brainstorming is always intended as a mere first step before judgement, power dynamics can also influence whether or not certain ideas are shared. For this reason, Osborn encouraged brainstorming amongst employees of the same rank, but conformity can nevertheless remain a concern depending on the culture of the group. The ideas of the loudest members of the group often take over the session, or a boss’ known preferences may guide the ideas in a narrow direction.
Moreover, individuals in group settings tend to lower their creativity or skill to less creative or productive individuals. This phenomenon, often seen in sports practice where better athletes lower their skill when practicing with lower-level players, means that high performing people will perform at the lower level of their colleagues, stifling their potentially effective contributions.¹¹
The efficacy of a brainstorming session also depends on the personalities of the people in the group. For example, one study found that socially anxious individuals do not perform as well in brainstorming sessions. The authors demonstrated that the inhibition of socially anxious people in a group can further discourage others from openly sharing ideas, thereby lowering the overall efficacy of the group.¹² Despite the measures Osborn suggests for making an environment welcoming, such as an encouraging facilitator or relaxing room decor, it seems that apprehension can nevertheless creep in – to the point where individual brainstorming, in which people come up with ideas on their own before bringing them to a group, becomes more effective.
The onset of widespread remote work and electronic brainstorming may offer a best-of-both-worlds solution to the main obstacles to group brainstorming, while maintaining the positive impacts of decision acceptance and social facilitation. A study demonstrated that electronic brainstorming has greater efficacy and satisfaction with results than verbal brainstorming, even though both take place in a group setting.⁶ The authors suggested that electronic brainstorming removes the problems of production blocking and evaluation apprehension which typically reduces the success of an in-person brainstorming session. This method also preserves the positive impacts of pooling together resources and fostering shared investment in the ideas brought forward.
Osborn’s original rules for brainstorming take advantage of some social phenomena to enhance creativity, but traditional brainstorming also falls prey to other psychological tendencies which hinder productivity. As a result, the best practices for brainstorming in your team will likely depend on various factors like the group size, comfort level, and power dynamics of the group. As work has become more remote and flexible, traditional brainstorming may finally see a decline if electronic brainstorming proves to be more powerful.
Related TDL Content
The advantage of individual brainstorming preceding group sessions has become more commonplace as the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread remote work. Here, the benefits to team creativity from an online work setting are explored, including the adoption of electronic brainstorming, which can incorporate aspects from individual and group brainstorming to get the positive impacts of both.
Social loafing is the phenomenon where people apply less effort in a group setting than they would if working alone. Researchers have explored this tendency as an obstacle to effective brainstorming, suggesting that others may rely on a few key speakers to participate during a brainstorming session rather than offering their own ideas.
Groupthink can be another obstacle to good brainstorming. In an environment without criticism, as Osborn suggested was essential for brainstorming, ideas and lines of thinking can converge easily. This article explores our tendency to conform and even commit to poor ideas when criticism is discouraged.
- Besant, Hanisha. The Journey of Brainstorming. (2016) Journal of Transformative Innovation. 2(1), 1-7. https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/jti/vol2iss1/Besant_JTISU16A.pdf
- Taylor, D., Berry, P., & Block, C. (1958). Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking? Administrative Science Quarterly, 3(1), 23-47. doi:10.2307/2390603
- Bouchard, T. J., Jr., & Hare, M. (1970). Size, performance, and potential in brainstorming groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 54(1), 51–55. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0028621
- Diehl, Michael & Stroebe, Wolfgang. (1987). Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53. 497-509. 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687.
- Thompson, Leigh. (2017) How “Brainwriting” Can Get Better Ideas Out of Your Team. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/sponsored/2017/05/how-brainwriting-can-get-better-ideas-out-of-your-team
- Gallupe, Brent, Dennis, Alan R, Cooper, William H., Valacich, Joseph S., Bastianutti, Lana M. & Nunamaker, Jay F. Jr. (2017). Electronic Brainstorming and Group Size. Academy of Management Journal. 35(2). https://doi.org/10.5465/256377
- Oppezo, Marily & Schwartz, Daniel L. (2014) Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 40(4), 1142–1152. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036577
- Furnham, Adrian. (2003). The Brainstorming Myth. Business Strategy Review, 11(4), 21-28. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8616.00154
- Paulus, Paul, Kohn, Nicholas & Arditti, Lauren. (2011). Effects of Quantity and Quality Instructions on Brainstorming. The Journal of Creative Behavior. 45(1), 38-46. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2162-6057.2011.tb01083.x
- Lehrer, Jonah. (2012). Groupthink. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink
- Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. (2015). Why Group Brainstorming is a Waste of Time. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/03/why-group-brainstorming-is-a-waste-of-time
- Camacho, L. Mabel, & Paulus, Paul B. (1995). The role of social anxiousness in group brainstorming. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1071-1080. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241