A Better Way to Brainstorm

A Better Way to Brainstorm - header image

The definition of brainstorming may need another overhaul. Advertising leader Alex Osborn coined the term in 1939 to describe a group process for generating wild ideas at a rapid pace. But recently, brainstorming has characterized just about any structured group ideation session in the workplace. Unfortunately, a growing body of research suggests that neither of these approaches works well.

Some concepts are salvageable, however. Olson’s 1953 book that popularized brainstorming, Applied Imagination, encouraged outrageous ideas, quantity over quality, the absence of criticism and the need for combination and improvement. By modernizing a few of these guidelines, today’s business leaders can promote and implement a more effective brainstorming process.

Critical Findings

The first study on brainstorming took place at Yale University in 1958. Researchers placed 48 male undergraduates into 12 groups of four and gave them a series of creative puzzles to solve. A control sample of 48 students worked as individuals.

According to the study, group performance was “markedly inferior” to individual performance, “both in terms of number of ideas produced and in terms of number of unique ideas produced.” For all problems and all performance indicators, students working by themselves outperformed the groups.

Decades later, the result was the same. “Generally, brainstorming groups are significantly less productive than nominal groups, in terms of quantity and quality,” authors of a 1991 article in Basic and Applied Social Psychology said of previous research.

Why is group brainstorming so ineffective? Research points to several social and cognitive obstacles.

Social Barriers

Several individuals sitting at a table with laptops - imageIn a group setting, each person has the ability to observe the ideas and productivity of others, which results in social comparison. This can lead to a number of possible consequences.

Some group members may match the input and performance of others, resulting in a lack of effort. Social loafing and social matching can be a consequence of group brainstorming, according to an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In social loafing, people may exert less effort in a group than they would individually. For social matching, group members tend to conform to peers during a brainstorming session and may offer fewer ideas if they believe they have been more productive than others. This is not to be confused with conformity, which involves group members generating similar types of ideas.

Social anxiety can also become intertwined with social comparison. In an article titled “The Role of Social Anxiousness in Group Brainstorming,” researchers describe how people who tend to be anxious perform poorly in group settings but not during solo brainstorming. In addition, less anxious group members often lower their performance during brainstorming sessions.

The presence of an expert in a brainstorming session can cause group members to hold back ideas. In the Journal of Applied Psychology, a study tested the inhibition of undergraduates in three separate brainstorming groups. Researchers told the first group that all of the other members had prior experience, the second group was told that just one other member had prior experience, and the third control group was given no information on experience. Inhibition was greatest in the all-expert group. Meanwhile, the highest level of original and practical ideas came from the control group.

Cognitive Barriers

One of the more important drawbacks in brainstorming is production blocking. Because members of the group must take turns presenting an idea, some may get distracted, forget their idea or not have enough time to think of an idea.

Production blocking accounted for most of the productivity loss of real brainstorming groups” when compared to social loafing and social anxiety, another study found. Furthermore, research in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology hypothesized that production blocking interfered with generating ideas because of the wait between the generation and articulation of ideas. Relatively long delays led to production blocking, and unpredictable delays reduced the flexibility of idea generation.

Another cognitive barrier is collaborative fixation. This term refers to the way certain stimuli block or impede “the successful completion of various types of cognitive operations, such as those involved in remembering, solving problems, and generating creative ideas,” an article in Applied Cognitive Psychology explained. The article verified that collaborative fixation causes group members to focus on a category of ideas suggested by other group members rather than a more diverse set of ideas.

How to Improve Brainstorming

Provide Individual Time

One person sitting at a desk with laptop - imageIn light of the current body of research, brainstorming needs to start with individual time. By thinking alone, employees gain the freedom to be creative and innovative. Workers don’t have to limit themselves to a certain amount of time or a certain way of thinking. In a social context, they aren’t affected by the ideas, productivity level and status of others.

Individual brainstorming also includes a built-in benefit — incubation time between individual and group sessions. Incubation refers to stimulated unconscious thought that helps with creativity and problem solving. When individuals brainstorm prior to a group meeting, they have time to ponder additional solutions. Taking breaks increases the effectiveness of brainstorming sessions due to the incubation effect.

Allow Criticism and Debate

Although Olson, the creator of brainstorming, wanted to eliminate criticism from the process, research has countered his point.

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, a study found that brainstorming groups allowing debate outperformed traditional groups by 25 percent. The results held across different cultures, with debate groups superior to traditional groups in France and the United States. A study from Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment echoed these results — that optimal creativity comes from brainstorming groups that are allowed to debate.

Debate actually stimulates creativity. It causes a group to look at the strengths and weaknesses of an idea, leading to opportunities for combination and improvement — an original rule from Olson that can remain in the modern definition of brainstorming.

The Value of Education

Having knowledge of the latest best practices in business is invaluable. Whether it’s brainstorming or other key strategies, business leaders must use their knowledge and skills to reach organizational goals and unleash the potential for success.

In the area of brainstorming, research demonstrates the power of both the individual and the group. Today, businesses can leverage individual brainstorming sessions to generate unique ideas. When it’s time to discuss, critique and build on these ideas, groups can collaborate in the second wave of the brainstorming process.

In addition to brainstorming, leaders can gain the knowledge to help them understand other essential areas in business. Alvernia University’s online MBA provides a solid foundation in leadership, marketing, finance, accounting and more. Graduates can use this education to move into leadership positions, start their own business or pursue other goals in the world of business.

The MBA program is also available on campus.