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Why Is Everyone Picking on Brainstorming?

A few scientific studies have come down against group brainstorm sessions. But as Stanford professor Bob Sutton argues, who cares?
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Stanford professor Bob Sutton is a chivalrous guy. Every so often he takes up his lance to defend the honor of one defamed. The name of the slandered is "brainstorming." 

Sutton's long-running defense of brainstorming began in 2006, when the Wall Street Journal reported that people generate more ideas working alone than in groups. In 2012, a New Yorker article resurfaced the productivity argument, and Sutton again responded. Last week, an executive took Sutton to task in an email for teaching a debunked methodology. True to form, Sutton promptly re-bunked it. "Alas, this assertion is an overstatement at the very least and possibly downright wrong," he wrote on LinkedIn.

Sutton comes by his staunch--if qualified--belief in brainstorming from decades studying companies like IDEO that practice it with the commitment and finesse of violin virtuosos. People who research brainstorming don't study pros like these, Sutton contends. Rather, they observe sessions conducted without benefit of expert facilitation. "If these were studies of sexual performance," he wrote in 2006, "it would be like drawing inferences about what happens with experienced couples on the basis of research done only with virgins during the first time they had sex." 

Sutton also argues that studies which plump for solo brainstorming rarely measure the quality of ideas generated, the success of projects incorporating those ideas, or whether people learned from the process. Nor do they take into account the reactions of clients, dazzled by "the collective energy that emerges during a well-run group brainstorm that is packed with skilled and imaginative people," Sutton writes.

I've always found attacks on brainstorming baffling. With so many demotivating, wasteful, and abstruse practices turning employees' creative juices to sludge, why call out this hopeful--potentially helpful--expression of confidence in the group? Who said, "Hey, holding unconstrained conversations about ideas with smart people is cool, but let's do a study to see if sitting by yourself talking into a microphone is more productive?" So maybe brainstorming isn't the most efficient way to generate ideas--who cares? No one walks out of a brainstorming session feeling stupider or less engaged. For one or two hours out of the day, no one was bored.

We all bemoan how isolated we've become--absorbed in our screens, communicating through bursts of text, abbreviating our words, our ideas, even our emotions for rapid transmission. Why criticize one of the few opportunities we have left to sit around and let the fur fly? 

Personally, I love brainstorming. I love seeing how other people think. I love watching my ideas reshaped like so many balloon animals. I love the little frisson that passes around the conference table when someone unexpectedly nails it. Even when the session produces nothing very useful, I feel refreshed. Like someone who hears her longtime spouse tell an unfamiliar story or make a surprising observation, I look at my colleagues with renewed interest. I feel better about us.

Working out of my home office, I brainstorm by myself all the time. I come up with some good stuff--at least I think I do. But I've driven down these mental paths so many times before, that it's easy to get stuck in my own tracks. It's like that song from "Sound of Music." I follow a path, and it brings me back to "doe."

I do find private brainstorming useful when it's in preparation for collective brainstorming. I assume this is a common practice. You don't show up at a potluck without a casserole--something for others to spoon onto their plates with the biscuits and coleslaw and lemon squares. I normally bring three to five ideas to a brainstorming session and trot them out in those moments when we've run a subject to ground and are considering what to set loose next. If the time never seems right--the discussion hews strongly in other directions--I just hold onto them. There are always a variety of forums for introducing new ideas. I've never heard of a business with a flipchart-contents-only policy.

So I'll join Sutton on the ramparts and echo his advice: treat brainstorming as one tool among many and learn to do it well. Toward that end, here are IDEO's guidelines for brainstorming, which are also used at Stanford's d.school. Master them. Then next time someone does one of these studies, invite them to watch.

Last updated: Jul 15, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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