Why Brainstorming Is Not Creative
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Brainstorming is great fun, good for team building and a self-esteem builder. However, it does fail in one rather important way. It is not effective at providing you with truly creative ideas. Here's why.
What Is Brainstorming?
The word "brainstorm" has two meanings. The first and most common use of the word is as a generic term for generating ideas. It is a vague term and does not interest us here.
Within creativity circles, on the other hand, a "brainstorm" is a specific process devised by Alex Osborn, an advertising chap, in the 1940s. He later wrote about brainstorming in several books on creativity and eventually teamed up with Sidney Parnes to develop a more sophisticated creativity approach known as creative problem solving (CPS), which has been institutionalised and is revered at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College.
Surprisingly, when you consider that creativity is all about trying out new ideas and embracing change, brainstorming has remained largely unchanged since Mr. Osborn invented the process, 70 years ago, based on a series of assumptions that he made while running his ad agency. It is even more surprising when you consider that these assumptions have largely been proven wrong over the years. Nevertheless, a large number of creativity experts cling to brainstorming as an unchangeable technique that must be followed simply because it has been been around for so many years − demonstrating that many creativity consultants are as reluctant to let go of outdated processes as their clients.
Four Flawed Assumptions
Brainstorming is essentially based on four assumptions.
- People verbally collaborating on ideas will have more ideas and more creative ideas than the same people generating ideas individually.
- You must reserve judgment; if you are allowed to criticise ideas, during the idea generation phase of the brainstorm, you will stifle creativity.
- If you generate a large number of ideas, some of them will be creative.
- If a manager reviews the list of ideas produced in a brainstorm, she will select the most creative idea.
It turns out that these are all wrong. Let us look at each of them.
The Group Thing Does Not Quite Work
Much of the debate around the effectiveness of brainstorming centres on research performed by a team at Yale University more than 50 years ago. This is unfortunate as it is by far the least interesting and least important criticism of brainstorming. Nevertheless, it is worth revisiting for a couple of paragraphs.
In 1958, a team at Yale University was one of the first to test brainstorming1. They put together several groups to generate ideas. Half of the groups followed Osborn's method and collaborated to generate ideas. The other half were nominal groups in which each member simply wrote down ideas without interacting with others in the group. What the Yale team found was that the nominal groups consistently had more ideas and more creative ideas than the brainstorming group. Each group followed the same rules and focused on the same problem statement. The only difference was whether they worked as a facilitated group or as individuals.
Subsequent tests have confirmed this. Fortunately, however, for the brainstorm facilitator, it is not a difficult problem to get around. For instance, you can have people write down ideas individually for a period before putting them in a group to combine ideas and generate more.
Again, this issue with brainstorming is the least critical. So, let's move on to the next three which are critical.
Criticism Enhances Creativity
The fundamental rule of brainstorming, of course, is that there is to be no criticism of ideas. Criticising ideas will hurt people's feelings and inhibit their creativity. As a result, you absolutely must not have criticism during idea generation. Right?
This assumption sounds really good; so good in fact that no one thought to test it until a couple of years ago when it was found to be completely wrong.
Researchers at University of California, Berkeley2 set up three groups of brainstorming teams. One group was given no instructions. The second group was given traditional brainstorming instructions and specifically told not to criticise ideas during idea generation. The third group was given brainstorming instructions with difference. This group was specifically encouraged to criticise ideas during the idea generation phase. The teams given no instructions had the fewest and least creative ideas. The traditional brainstormers, who were forbidden to criticise ideas, did only slightly better. The group that was encouraged to criticise ideas had the best results by far.
This bit of research appalls most brainstorm facilitators and lovers of CPS who believe that any hint of criticism will cause participants to clam up, become inhibited and stop sharing ideas. But, as the Berkeley research has shown, this is not the case. Criticism actually enhances to level of creativity.
Frankly, I am not surprised by the results. When artists, writers, scientists and other creative people collaborate on projects, they inevitably criticise each others' ideas. Moreover, if you really want to build upon idea, you need to identify its weaknesses. You can only do this by criticising the idea.
I have also found that when I run anticonventional thinking (ACT) sessions, which actively encourages criticism, not only do we see a high level of creativity, but participants tell me they feel freer when they can criticise ideas. As more than one participant has said, "it is only when we can criticise ideas that we can truly discuss them."
Brainstorm Facilitators Reluctant to Experiment
Interestingly, when I tell brainstorm facilitators about this research, they vehemently deny it. They are sure the researchers from Berkeley are wrong. But, when I ask the brainstorm facilitators if they have every actually tried a brainstorm where criticism is encouraged, they inevitably say, "no". So, I ask them simply to give it a try and see what happens. It is no great challenge to bring together a few friends and test a brainstorm in which criticism of ideas is encouraged. Few of them ever do this, preferring to stick to their 70 year old method.
Quantity Does Not Lead to Quality
If the prohibition of criticism is the fundamental rule of brainstorming, the notion that if you generate a large number of ideas, some of them must be creative, is the fundamental concept behind brainstorming. Brainstorm facilitators tell us that when they start a session, people shout out conventional, boring ideas. But, when they run out of such ideas, they have no choice but to start shouting out creative ideas. These seems perfectly logical, until you stop to think about it and realise it does not make any sense at all. Why should someone who has had lots of boring ideas suddenly have creative ideas?
Unfortunately, this assumption has not been clinically tested to my knowledge. Nevertheless, look at it this way: imagine you are at a dinner party. You are seated next to an old man who starts telling you boring stories, one after the other. Do you think that he will eventually run out of boring stories and start telling creative stories?
I doubt it! I believe the only way you can get creative stories from such a person would be to provoke him into thinking differently. Likewise, if an individual is shouting out one conventional idea after another, the best way to get her to think creatively is to provoke her to think differently. A good creativity facilitator can do this, of course. But this has nothing to do with brainstorming and everything to do with the talents of the creativity facilitator.
People Do Not Like Creative Ideas
Because the aim of brainstorming is to produce a large number of ideas, the result of any brainstorm will be a long list of ideas that someone needs to sort through in order to identify which idea to take forward and eventually implement. Brainstorming does not address how to do this. CPS is vague about it. In practice, there may be a vote for best ideas.
In any event, ideas are often organised in some fashion and presented to a manager who must make a decision about which idea to implement. Surely, you might think, in this era of innovation and creativity in which bosses extol the importance of creative thinking and the necessity of innovation, managers will select the most creative idea on the list.
The truth is, in spite of what they say, people tend not to like creative ideas. Research at the University of Pennsylvania3, has demonstrated that people are biased against creative ideas. Given a choice of ideas to implement, most people will select relatively conventional ideas over more creative ideas. This is doubly true if evaluation criteria are vague (such as "choose the best idea").
So, even if against all odds, a brainstorm session results in a truly creative idea with the potential to become a major innovation, that idea will probably not be selected for implementation.
In my own experience and in discussion with innovation managers, I have found that most brainstorms end at the list of ideas. At best the brainstorm is reported as a success because "we generated 250 ideas!" but not one of the ideas is ever actually realised.
On the rare occasions when an idea is implemented, it is very often a buzzword idea (in other words, an idea that incorporates popular but often meaningless jargon popular in the company - read more about buzzword ideas here). Alternatively, it is an idea favourited by a manager and which existed long before the brainstorm session. In such cases, the brainstorm acts as a means of legitimising the idea as being creative and worthy of implementation.
In spite of the criticism of brainstorming and CPS, many creativity facilitators continue to use it, preferring to criticise the criticism rather than explore and experiment with alternative approaches. And many such facilitators manage to overcome some of the weaknesses of brainstorming. They argue that brainstorming needs a talented facilitator in order to be effective.
The truth is that a talented facilitator can get good ideas out of any group, even when using an ineffective method, such as brainstorming. Indeed, if such facilitators were to adopt better methods, they could get even better results.
There are a handful of alternatives to brainstorming − though many of them are only slight modifications on brainstorming, introducing gimmick or two to the traditional method and, as such, fail to overcome brainstorming's weaknesses.
It was largely in response to the weaknesses of brainstorming that I developed anticonventional thinking (ACT) which addresses each of these weaknesses. ACT is easy to follow, is modeled after the way artists collaborate on projects and is based on research. You can learn more about ACT here.
I believe ACT is the best alterative to brainstorming, but of course I am prejudiced!
How about you? What do you think? Have you tried alternatives to brainstorming? What kind of results did you get? Share your experiences with me, please.
- DW Taylor, PC Berry and CH Block, "Does Group Participation When Using
Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?" Administrative
Science Quarterly 3, no 1 (1958): 23-47
- Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of
Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity”, Institute for Research
on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley)
Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg
- Mueller, Jennifer S.; Melwani, Shimul; and Goncalo, Jack A., "The Bias
Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas" (2011).
Articles & Chapters. Paper 450.
http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/articles/450/ (Link goes to summary which includes link to paper)
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