Brainstorming a Waste of Time

To grow and innovate, organizations have to come up with creative ideas. At the employee level, creativity results from a combination of expertise, motivation, and thinking skills. At the team level, it results from the synergies between team members, which allows the group to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. The most widely used method to spark group creativity is brainstorming, a technique first introduced by Alex Osborn, in the 1950s.

Brainstorming is based on four rules: (a) generate as many ideas as possible; (b) prioritize unusual or original ideas; (c) combine and refine the ideas generated; and (d) abstain from criticism during the exercise. This process, which should be informal and unstructured, is based on two old psychological premises. Firstly, the mere presence of others can have motivating effects on an individual’s performance and secondly, quantity (eventually) leads to quality.

Osborn famously claimed that brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50% versus individuals working on their own. However, after six decades of independent research, there is very little evidence to support the claim that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce, working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss, which is the very opposite of synergy.

Individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams, when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written. Another problem is that teams tend to give up when they notice that their efforts aren’t producing much.

So why doesn’t brainstorming work in teams? Below are listed four explanations:

  • Social loafing: People tend to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than when working alone. This is also known as free riding. As with the bystander effect, we feel less propelled to do something when we know other people might do it.
  • Social anxiety: People worry about other team members’ view of their ideas. This is also referred to as evaluation apprehension. Similarly, when team members perceive that others have more expertise, their performance declines. This is especially problematic for introverted and less confident individuals.
  • Regression to the mean: This is the process of downward adjustment, whereby the most talented group members end up matching the performance of their less talented counterparts. This effect is well known in sports – if you practice with someone less competent than you, your competence level declines and you sink to the mediocrity of your opponent.
  • Production blocking: No matter how large the group, individuals can only express a single idea at a time, if they want other group members to hear them. Studies have found that the number of suggestions plateau with more than six or seven group members, and that the number of ideas per person declines as group size increases.

Given brainstorming’s flaws, why is the practice so widely adopted?

There are two main reasons: First, with the increased specialization of labor, organizations see that expertise is distributed among their employees. If problem-solving benefits from different types of knowledge, assembling the right combination of people should, in theory, increase the amount of expertise in the room and result in better solutions being proposed. However, in practice, this approach would require careful selection of individuals and painstaking coordination of their efforts. Second, even though groups don’t generate more or better ideas, brainstorming is arguably more democratic than the alternatives. So it can enhance buy-in and subsequent implementation of the ideas so generated, regardless of their quality.

Ultimately, brainstorming continues to be used because it feels intuitively right. As such, it is one more placebo in the talent management cabinet, which is believed to work in spite of the clear absence of evidence.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes, that while there are flaws with brainstorming in groups, carefully choosing the combination of people could result in newer ideas. The reason and expectation for brainstorming should be, getting everyone together on the same platform and making the team feel good; rather than burdening it with unrealistically high expectations viz. achieving creative performance or generating better ideas.

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