Managing: Getting drowned out by the brainstorm

The most recent studies suggest that not only is brainstorming inefficient, it often stifles creativity, too.

Brainstorming is a common practice in just about any organization. Rare is the employee who has not been ushered into a conference room, plied with snacks and coffee, and told to bounce ideas around with colleagues. The underlying premise is that 10 brains are better than one brain. The group will generate more ideas, and because the members have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, they will explore a wide range of options. However, according to a recent study conducted at the University of Texas at Arlington, brainstorming is not only inefficient, it can actually impede creativity.

Over 50 years ago, one of the earliest champions of brainstorming, Alex Osborn, a U.S. advertising executive, developed rules for the practice – such as banning criticism and encouraging freewheeling – which he published in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. The thinking was that in a relaxed, supportive environment, the creative juices would start flowing.

“People have a false assumption that they’re more productive working as a group than individually, even though all evidence shows it’s the opposite,” explains Nicholas Kohn, co-author of the University of Texas study, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. Kohn and a colleague conducted a handful of experiments in which they asked students – both in groups and individually – to come up with ideas on how to improve the university. Kohn found that the students working in groups generated fewer ideas than their solitary peers.

But he also examined the ideas themselves and found that people in groups examined a more limited range of suggestions. The reason, according to Kohn, is fixation. That is, as soon as one member of the group offers an idea, the others get stuck on it and conform their own thinking to the suggestion. Creativity, in effect, is stifled.

In many cases, we may not even be aware that fixation is occuring. In another study of Kohn’s, currently under review for publication, he gave engineering students blueprints of a simple vehicle that moved from point A to point B. He asked them to design a second vehicle that would serve the same function, but to make it as different from the existing blueprints as possible. “They actually became fixated and came up with a nearly identical design,” he says.

Researchers have also found that some participants of brainstorming sessions tend to engage in “social loafing,” meaning they put in less effort because responsibility is shared with other group members. Further studies report that some members can be anxious about having their ideas judged, which leads them to contribute less.

The research suggests that managers should know what they’re trying to achieve before organizing a brainstorming session. If they’re looking for a unique solution to a problem, or simply want as many ideas as possible, then having employees work on their own first will produce stronger results. In fact, brainstorming works best when everyone comes together to share their ideas after they’ve had time to work independently, since groups tend to be better at shaping and building upon ideas. Fixation actually comes in handy when the mandate is to identify and refine good ideas.

Still, over the decades, we’ve developed a certain comfort level with brainstorming. Many people enjoy the social aspect, as working with others builds camaraderie. Even Kohn and his colleagues do it. “Here I am studying brainstorming, showing its flaws,” he says, “and I’m as guilty as anyone else as far as engaging in it.”