A controversy over brainstorming has been brewing for decades.

Brainstorming was popularized by an advertising executive, Alex Osborn, back in the 1940s. Believed to be responsible for the creative output of his firm, brainstorming spread quickly.

Today, we continue to see it touted by leading creative firms. Award-winning design firm IDEO advocates for brainstorming, offering these  seven tips that build off Osborn's original rules.

However, brainstorming has come under frequent criticism. The most notable was this Jonah Lehrer article in The New Yorker  that claimed brainstorming doesn't work. To make his case, Lehrer describes study after study that found individuals generate more ideas on their own than in groups.

Lehrer isn't wrong. The research is on his side.

Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, summarized much of the research on brainstorming. She concluded that individuals are better at divergent thinking--thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas--whereas groups are better at convergent thinking--selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Most studies find that a number of individuals working on their own will generate more diverse ideas than the same number participating in a brainstorming session.

The challenges with brainstorming arise from our behavior in groups. We tend to conform to the will of the group, reducing our creative output. We suffer from social loafing, where we assume that others in the group will contribute, so we don't work as hard as we would if we were on our own. Group behavior tends to devolve to that of the lowest performing member.

And finally, ideas collide. We've all had the experience where you were just about to say something when someone else jumps in, and you quickly lose your idea. This doesn't happen when we work alone.

So why do creative firms continue to tout the benefits of brainstorming?

There are two primary arguments. The first is that brainstorming is a skill that needs to be developed. Proponents of this position argue that companies should bring in facilitators to support brainstorming sessions.

This argument has merit. The research does show that facilitated brainstorming groups do match the performance of individuals working on their own. But most companies don't have access to trained facilitators, and it's hard to justify the cost of bringing one in since companies can get the same outcome by having people generate ideas individually.

The second argument is that the collaborative benefits of brainstorming outweigh the loss in creative output. This might be true. Brainstorming does bring people together. It helps people feel like they are a part of the process.

This is particularly important in creative firms, where there are tremendous benefits to including the client in the creative process. If the client feels like part of an innovative process, it may be happier with the results.

But do we have to trade off collaboration for creative output?

Fortunately, the answer is no.

Thompson makes several recommendations on how to improve brainstorming. The simplest is to do brainwriting. Here's how it works:

  • Have each participant write his or her ideas down silently.
  • After ideas have been captured, share ideas in a round-robin fashion.
  • Do multiple sessions of writing, followed by sharing, so that people have a chance to build on one another's ideas.

Making this simple change addresses many of the challenges with creative output that arise during group brainstorming sessions while still keeping the collaborative benefits.

If you want to learn more about the challenges with brainstorming and how to overcome them, see  Stop Brainstorming and Generate Better Ideas.

Published on: Feb 4, 2016