Do You Believe in Brainstorming?

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Conventional wisdom

Noun:

The generally accepted belief or opinion about a particular matter. Conventional wisdom may be proven to be untrue.

Example:

It is widely believed that before the voyage of Christopher Colobus most people thought that the world was flat.  The myth of the flat earth

Brainstorming

What do you do when you need a novel solution? The answer is obvious, you hold a brainstorming session. I’ve been doing them for 30 years. I’ve brainstormed everything from “What frozen poultry product could we sell?” to “How can we process more credit card applications?”

Brainstorming was first suggested in 1957 by Alex Osborn in his book Applied Imagination. He proposed it as a way of getting groups to come up with ideas.

The rules of a good brainstorming session are very simple:



  1. Produce as many ideas as possible
  2. Build on each other’s ideas
  3. The wackier the idea the better
  4. Do not evaluate until after you have finished generating ideas

Brainstorming is common place, I can vouch for its existence in frozen chicken factories and banks and I’m prepared to lay a chunky bet that the approach is used pretty much everywhere else as well.

How does brainstorming work?

The beauty of brainstorming is that it is easy to understand how it works:

  • Two heads are better than one
  • We have all had different experiences
  • New ideas come from combining old ones

Alex Osborne claimed that “The average person can think of twice as many ideas when working with a group than when working alone.” 

Four simple rules, some intuitive logic and a 100% uplift in ideas generated. It is no surprise brainstorming took off.

Not so wise…

Unfortunately Mr Osborn was wrong.

A year after making his claim a group of psychologists ran a test to see if brainstorming really did double idea generation. They set up two teams of people and asked them to brainstorm the advantages and disadvantages of having two thumbs on each hand.

One team followed the classic brainstorming approach, working together to generate a list of ideas. The other team… well they weren’t a team, it was just people sitting in separate rooms writing down their ideas. There was no contact between them at all, no cross fertilisation or sharing of experiences, just a stream of whatever came into their heads.

The individual’s ideas were de-duped (if two people had the same idea it was only counted once) and combined. The final list was then compared with the list created by the traditional method. The psychologists found that the group of 4 individuals produced twice as many ideas as the team of 4 people.

Or to put it another way, brainstorming doesn’t enhance creativity, it destroys it.

Why is conventional wisdom wrong?

In 1987 Diehl and Strobbe carried out a literature search. They found that the experiment had been repeated, one way or another, twenty-five times. The individuals always generated more ideas than the group, invariably by a margin of 100%.

Being good scientists Diehl and Strobbe asked themselves why? They came up with 3 theories:

  • Free Riders — some people sit in sessions drinking tea whilst keeping their mouths shut
  • Fear — some people are so worried what others think about their ideas they are scared to share them
  • Forgetfulness — some people simply forget their ideas whilst they are listening to others

It turns out that some of us are lazy and others are shy but we are all forgetful. Our short-term memory can only hold four or five ideas at anyone time. Whilst your boss is pontificating about his idea and you are nodding your head pretending to agree, you have had ten other ideas and forgotten eight of them.

An alternative

Brainstorming in groups doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean you should stop. Change the rules slightly. First ask the contributors to sit by themsleves for fifteen minutes writing down all their ideas. Then run a conventional session so people can build on each other’s thoughts.

This approach has two benefits:

  • You will generate twice as many ideas
  • The holder of the session has write down the issue ahead of time which will force them to be clearer


As for conventional wisdom…

If brainstorming destroys creativity rather than enhancing it, how effective are our other beliefs?

All these management beliefs are widely accepted as the best way to do things, until, of course, they are not.

Could you test something else instead?

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1 COMMENT

  1. “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality. ” Nikola Tesla.

    If Earth is spherical, then spherical geometry will apply to Earth’s reality. If Earth is spherical, then the curvature will be observable and measurable, repeatably. It is a factor that is exponential with distance (7.98 inches for every mile squared), which should be ubiquitously measurable over every large body of water, as water always seeks its level. No curve, no globe. No amount of brainstorming will change that.

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