Brainstorming is probably the best-known and most widely used group technique for creative problem solving. Many organizations, when faced with a challenge, brainstorm until exhaustion.
“Let’s meet in the meeting room or by video conference to brainstorm a bunch of ideas until we find the solution,” that’s the mindset behind this approach. It is often thought that when a group of people throw random ideas, eventually one will work and hit the nail on the head.
The contraindications of brainstorming
Brainstorming is so established in the organizational imagination that it often appears as the default response to any problem. However, sometimes this prevents you from looking for other solutions and choosing a strategy that is not always the most appropriate way to channel your creative efforts.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Texas looked at the actual effects of brainstorming on creative thinking and found that instead of leading to a host of new ideas, brainstorming often narrows the focus of the group to one single non-optimal idea.
These psychologists found that it was relatively common for group members to become obsessed with each other’s ideas and unconsciously rally around one idea, instead of exploring other more original and valid proposals.
On the other hand, the effectiveness of brainstorming also depends to a large extent on the hierarchy. In all groups, especially those that form in a labor organization, there is a hierarchy, so that some people have more “power” than others due to their experience or position.
This imbalance of power often causes certain members to generate a disproportionate number of ideas, based solely on their social position. Members who are more secure or have more social power will also express their ideas first and reinforce them, so that they end up inadvertently limiting the ideas of people who have less power.
On the other hand, creativity is not a process that can be subjected to strict schedules. Creativity is not linear but consists of adding, subtracting, combining, cutting, and putting ideas back together to form new patterns or configurations. For this reason, good ideas usually appear through insight at the most unexpected times and places.
Brainstorming violates the rhythm and conditions of creative thinking, adding pressure that ends up being detrimental and hampering originality.
How to do an effective brainstorming?
After studying creativity in groups, psychologists at the University of Texas also concluded that brainstorming doesn’t really work as well as we think. They state that “In face-to-face interactions, the opportunity to share information and knowledge is limited by the fact that only one person can express his/her ideas at a time.”
“While waiting his/her turn to share ideas, another person may forget what he/she meant to say or be distracted by the ideas others are sharing. In addition, there can also be quite uneven participation as some people dominate the discussion.”
These psychologists explain that more and more research supports the theory that individual brainstorming is more effective than group brainstorming. However, that does not mean that it is necessary to give up this technique. That is why they have incorporated some variations to the original brainstorming technique.
In a small experiment, these psychologists asked 57 employees of a tech-company to come up with ideas on how to build an excellent, meaningful, and effective team. One group first wrote their ideas on paper individually and then held a group session. After 10 minutes writing down the ideas individually, they were asked to start passing out their sheets to the group as they continued to brainstorm. In the other group the order was reversed.
People generated 37% more ideas when they first worked in a group, compared to those who worked alone first.
In a second study, they tested a technique called asynchronous brainwriting, in which people rapidly alternate between sharing with a group and working alone, with the goal of getting the best of both worlds. In practice, participants alternated between writing down ideas individually for 8 minutes, followed by short 3-minute review sessions in which they went through and read their team members’ ideas. The asynchronous condition produced 71% more ideas than the traditional group condition.
Both studies demonstrate the benefits of exchanging ideas through writing and individual work. Therefore, it can be a more effective variation than traditional brainstorming. That means the next time you go brainstorming, you better harness the power of writing to increase group productivity and let the creativity flow.
Paulus, P. B. et. Al. (2015) Asynchronous Brainstorming in an Industrial Setting Exploratory Studies. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society; 57(6):1076-94.
Brown, V. R., & Paulus, P. B. (2002) Making group brainstorming more effective: Recommendations from an associative memory perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 11(6): 208-212.
Kohn, N. W. & Smith, S. M. (2011) Collaborative fixation: Effects of others’ ideas on brainstorming. Applied Cognitive Psychology; 25(3): 359-371.