Why Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work


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Brainstorming doesn’t work.

It leads to ideas that conform to each other, and not to novel new ways of thinking. The idea of brainstorming in a group seems to make sense, but the end result, the final product, is less than it could have been if group brainstorming could have been avoided.

Sounds sacrilegious to say that, doesn’t it?

Why Do We Brainstorm?

You have a blank screen in front of you. You’re pretty desperate for an idea. You’re not sure about where to find something to write about. Your project or product is in need of something and you’re not sure where to go.

It seems that you can’t come up with the idea on your own, so you turn to the group and brainstorm.

Brainstorming originates from Alex F. Osborn who, in the 1940’s, wrote a book sharing the creative secrets he used at his advertising agency, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn. He called his book Your Creative Power and it became a runaway success. His idea of  getting a group together and “storming the problem” with your brain caught on and pretty soon the idea of brainstorming was the standard way for business, education, government, and the military to solve problems. The concept behind Osborn’s idea is that brainstorming was a method that would free participants from “inhibition, self-criticism, and criticism by others” so that a specific problem might receive the maximum ideas possible.

For years, no one questioned the validity of the concept. Brainstorming seems like the best way to apply the idea that we are stronger as a group than we are if we are alone. It seems logical to bring in your whole team, start throwing around ideas, and building on them. The best will rise to the top and you’ll get ideas that one person alone could not have come up with.

We assumed that the group, and not the individual, can achieve more success with each person’s creativity springboarding off of another’s. We were wrong.

In A Brainstorming Group, We Think Alike

Strong personalities rule the show. Leadership unconsciously steers ideas towards preferred conclusions, or asks questions that beg a specific kind of answer. Team members fear negative evaluation from those higher up and their input is limited and the ideas they share are only the ones they deem “reasonable.”

Why does group brainstorming so consistently fail despite the protestations of those who swear by it? How could they miss seeing what’s happening?

1. We see what we expect to see.

The end of a brainstorming session will leave us with exactly what we intended it to: lots of ideas to choose from. From all appearances, it looks like a success. Clearly, the group can come up with more ideas in total than an individual person can. (Taylor, Berry, Block; Administrative Science Quarterly 1958, PDF) But mere quantity doesn’t answer the question: does group participation help or hurt creative thinking?

You don’t know about all the ideas that were stifled in the process. In fact, if you’ve ever heard a team member say, weeks or months down the road of a project when something needs changing, “I thought of that but didn’t want to say anything” you can bet your brainstorming session didn’t work.

A full whiteboard doesn’t mean your brainstorming session gave you the best possible results. It might have only given you lots of output.

2. Personalities that don’t mix.

Any time you get a group of people together, you quickly see who is dominant, who is vocal, who is quiet, who is meek, who is extroverted, who is introverted, who is passive, and who is aggressive. To expect this group to provide creative ideas unfettered and freely is a foolish assumption.

brainstorming personality conflicts

Personalities are always at work (and sometimes at war) in a group.

Our ideas are a personal thing. We all naturally have a tendency to both want to get along with others, and to not appear foolish in front of others. Asking certain personality types to be willing to temporarily throw these driving forces to the wind is asking too much.

Consider the introvert, whose creative energy is derived by not being around other people. Putting him or her in a group with extroverts and expecting a great performance is asking too much. The introvert’s best ideas often come when people are not around to distract and wear on them.

A passive person might prefer to not have conflict, while an aggressive person requires it as fuel for their engine. Who do you think will speak up and who will quietly acquiesce to the popular idea?

3. The rise of the lowest common denominator.

Brainstorming curtails creativity unconsciously. We all want to get along. Few people actually like conflict (though some do). A kind of equilibrium is reached, to the detriment of the group.

Brainstorming also makes us lazy. When in a group focused on being creative, the idea is that you will feed off of each other, and springboard even further with the help of ideas that you would not have come up with. The reality is that brainstorming allows for “social loafing”, a term used in a 2010 Applied Cognitive Psychology study by Nicholas W. Kohn and Steven M. Smith. According to Kohn and Smith, group brainstorming means that the participants compare themselves to the others, leading to social loafing and social matching.

“Social loafing occurs when individuals give less effort in a group because responsibility is diffused. Social matching is a tendency to conform to peers. According to Latané’s (1981) social impact theory, larger groups lead to greater conformity and greater downward performance matching.”

The larger the group, the more they conform to each other and actually match their input and performance to the lowest common denominator. In other words, group brainstorming participants are less productive than they would be on their own.

4. Idea plagiarism and fixation is rampant.

Kohn and Smith continued their exploration of groups and the creation of ideas, explaining that we are unconsciously influenced by the ideas around us.

Using Duncker’s candle problem as an example, they showed how the ideas of others infect our own ideas in such a way that we cannot even discern when flaws that were present in the original idea are carried over into our own ideas. We create a solution built on the flaws of another. If we are left to come up with ideas without the input of others, our ideas tend to truly be unique and not merely derivative. The moment we are surrounded by the ideas of others, we absorb them as our own.

brainstorming idea

Sometimes the idea of another unconsciously becomes our idea.

This ties into fixation, or how, in a group, we become fixated on a solution and though we might generate many ideas, they are all fixated on a relatively narrow set. In other words: you might end up with lots of quantity after a brainstorming session, but did you ever have that feeling that not a single idea even came close? That they were all off in the same way?

You had a group of people who absorbed each other’s ideas, flaws and all, and the solution became a too-narrow one despite the number of ideas that surrounded it.

Solving The Group Brainstorming Problem

Re-injecting anonymity to the procedure will directly reduce several of the barriers that make group brainstorming fail. It removes the fear of being judged by fellow team members and by leaders for possible “silly” ideas or suggestions. It allows voices to be heard that would otherwise be drowned out by others in a verbal-dominant meeting.

These methods don’t, however, address the “social loafing” aspect and the problem that comes with wanting our ideas to fit together and conform to levels perceived as appropriate or acceptable.

Brainstorming, One Person At A Time

The idea of brainstorming, a no-holds creative attack at a problem, isn’t wrong. We can’t rely purely on passive luck and gestalt to solve all of our problems. There are times we have to run hard at a problem from any and all directions to find a chip in its armor.

It’s when we mix this brainstorming with a group that those group dynamics are put into play and the creative power of individuals is actually lessened. That’s where singular brainstorming comes into play. You can brainstorm on your own, as one person, without a group. The same rules apply regarding the removal of inhibition and self-criticism. When brainstorming on my own, I use a few basic techniques as I attack a problem:

1. Get The Obvious Out Of The Way

There will always be one or two ideas that immediately pop into your head. Just write them down.

Get the obvious solutions out of the way so you can move on from them. I find that I free up “thinking space” once I write down all of the obvious solutions and ideas. It’s one way I get past the self-criticism and inhibition problem that brainstorming is meant to avoid. I tell myself that, if all else fails, I can always come back and revisit those initial “sensible” solutions.

2. Go For Stream Of Consciousness

Write about your problem, stream-of-consciousness style, whatever comes to mind as it comes to mind. You must turn off your self-editing tendencies to do this.

Whether writing for a post or a headline or any other problem that needs solving, this works. It’s hard to get started, but once you do, it’s a snowball. Idea hops to idea, word hops to word. Whether it makes sense or is related doesn’t matter. Write it down. You can clean it up later.

3. Use A Word Bank

I’ll often use this for copywriting, but it can work for headlines, too. The idea is to collect a variety of words, some of which you might be able to pull from your stream-of-consciousness exercise.

brainstorming word bank

You free yourself from having to string them together with other words, which is often a reason we can’t think of a word. This method is purely about thinking of words that are related to a topic, and tossing them in a group. You can assemble, use, or ignore them later. Sometimes I categorize the words as “convincing” or “promise” words, particularly if I’m using them for headlines.

4. The Time Factor

Don’t wait until the last minute. And then wait until the last minute.

It works both ways, but I like to start attacking the problem mentally as soon as I can. I often find that the initial approaches aren’t the ultimate solution, but as time draws closer to a deadline, that’s when the great ideas start coming. In other words, you have to leave time to get the weak ideas out of the way so the strong ones can make their way to the top. Start early. Be patient even to the last minute.

5. Use Outside Activities

Many of my best ideas and breakthroughs happen not while I’m working on the problem, but when I’m out walking, painting, or playing the piano.

If you’re really stuck, go do something else. Do something really obvious, maybe even participate in the activity which has the problem that needs solving. Real world input is valuable. This is why you don’t wait until the last minute, so you have time to do this.

Making Singular Brainstorming Work For You

Singular brainstorming has always worked for me. It is a powerful, personal tool that can be used beyond blogging, and is a great skill to develop.  However, it carries the expectation that you can survive the wilderness of your own crazy ideas without the safety net of a group.

  1. It often happens at inconvenient times. I always carry a notebook and pen with me (you might prefer to use your phone to type or record your ideas) because, at the oddest times, I get a flood of ideas. Blog post ideas, headlines, art ideas…you name it.
  2. It often connects to future projects. I have a system in Evernote where I save the ideas I’ve come up with. It takes into account a method for not letting old ideas drop to the bottom, constantly circulating them upwards to evaluate if they are, indeed, something I intend to use. The brainstorm for one project often diverges into another.
  3. It takes courage to even acknowledge your ideas. In groups, despite the direction to put out unfettered ideas, most of us have a self-editing mechanism that keeps us from looking stupid in front of others. On your own, you’ll have to get past that and let the ridiculous exist. When you come back to read old ideas, you might be tempted to think “that was really stupid”, but please avoid that. Let your ideas just be ideas, with no judgment on them.
  4. It can be taken into a group setting. Preferring to brainstorm outside of the group doesn’t mean there is no possibility for group planning. It simply changes how the meeting works. People come armed with the ideas they came up with on their own.

Group planning meetings based on individual ideas can still happen. Singular brainstorming allows individuals to have a chance to work through their own creative ideas and free associations without the subtle influence of the larger group.

So, all of this to say: if you’re a solo blogger, or only one person facing down a problem, brainstorming is still a vital part of your efforts. You do better work without the group. No excuses.

About the Author

Julie R. Neidlinger is a writer, artist, and pilot from North Dakota. She has been blogging since 2002 at her Lone Prairie blog, and works as a freelance writer and visual artist.

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