Brainstorming Does Not Work

Brainstorming, a term coined by Alex F. Osborn in the 1950s, has often been used as a method to come up with new ideas. According to him, the team would meet, talk about ideas and during such meetings there would be no criticism of any idea, they would go for large quantities of ideas, build on each other’s ideas and even encourage wild and exaggerated ideas. He further went on to say this produced large quantities of ideas and that quantity produced quality.

Over the decades not only have the advertising and the creative sector followed the method but also all kinds of other industries including engineering, robotics and you name it. 

Now all of this has been debunked, through research. 

Although the answers were always obvious that brainstorming doesn’t work and is often just a reason for executives to fritter away the hours and get to no place, it’s good to have the backing of research. 

As has been said when a committee sits down to build an elephant they usually end up with a camel.

As early as 1987 Michael Deihl and Wolfgang Strpebe set out to prove, what they stated in good polite terms, “the loss of productivity through brainstorming”. Since then many studies have been conducted, some of these have even mocked the very term brainstorming. 

It’s undeniable that extroverts will speak more during meetings and introverts will speak less or not at all and that does not mean introverts do not come up with bright ideas? Of course they do, most especially when left to themselves. 

In the study called Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration Brian Mullen, Craig Jhonson & Eduardo Salas went on to prove that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they do not interact with others.

Let us here visualize a scenario of a team comprising the boss and the rest of the team members, some of them senior in hierarchy and the others junior, some of them extroverts and others introverted and let us go on to see a little of what might happen. 

Rather than focus on coming up with bright ideas the main objective of some of the team members may be to impress the boss, the extroverts would speak more, the juniors would defer to the seniors, the introverts would feel left out and these very introverts, some of them capable of good ideas, would want to speak up but might make a mess of it since due to their personality they feel intimidated in a group, so instead of talking about an elephant they would end up describing a monkey and feel worse about themselves. Not only that, the boss would end up having a misplaced impression of them. And a few might just have a brain freeze. These individuals would later think, why didn’t I come up with that during the meeting? 

Some of the team members might gain undeservedly and others lose undeservedly when the time comes for a recognition, a promotion or a hike in salary. 

This being just one, we can visualize many such different scenarios.

There are a few other aspects to think of concerning brainstorming. In the society we have created for ourselves, we view extroverts in a better light and introverts are often thought of as standoffish or even antisocial. To some brainstorming is a stress buster and to others the same brainstorming is a stress giver. Some even claim brainstorming is not about coming up with ideas but entering a creative state of mind. Well, so far as one would think brainstorming sessions in an organization should certainly be about coming up with workable or even brilliant ideas, many of which could be implemented..

Suggestion Box

An interesting example of good value is of Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft. Reportedly, he did not subscribe to brainstorming in its accepted form but arranged for a suggestion box in which employees were encouraged to drop off suggestions and ideas. 

Though short of time, he would dedicatedly take a week off twice a year when he went through all of the suggestions. This was his ‘do not disturb time’. He would go through each and every suggestion, undisturbed, while even the meals were brought to him. Along the way, he decided he was swamped with too many suggestions and ideas, many of which were of no use or even entirely useless. 

You will have to imagine the immense accumulation of papers he had to wade through, given the size of the organization. Since quantity very evidently did not result in quality, he eventually decided only fifty of the top employees known for their ability would contribute their ideas electronically and he would go through them from time to time, not having to take those two ‘thinking weeks’. 

No doubt there must have been some romance in the idea of having those ‘thinking weeks’ but doing away with them did result in saving of valuable time. Also undoubtedly, he might have missed out on some good or even great ideas since being junior does not mean one cannot come up with ideas, concepts, schemes and plans. 

Therefore, for the smaller and medium sized organizations, it might be recommended that they have that suggestion box for all employees. 

As for brainstorming, although mocked  and disparaged by many, it’ll probably survive as one of the practices for strategy and ideas.

Photos: Shutterstock / collage: Martina Advaney


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