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.