Who Says Brainstorming Works?

It is commonplace in meetings and workshops for the facilitator to ask attendees to brainstorm ways to resolve a problem. Everyone sits around throwing out insights and possible solutions. But if you notice, it doesn’t take long before people start repeating what others have said. Sometimes, they’ll even make a comment like, “Everybody else has mentioned the ideas I thought of.”

So how do we get around this barrier when attempting to gather ideas? Interestingly, there is actual research that has examined this issue. One group of researchers reviewed a broad range of brainstorming experiments. They concluded that productivity loss in brainstorming groups is significant and that the historical popularity of group brainstorming is substantially misguided.

Another study asked several groups of subjects to brainstorm ideas for solving a problem. Then they asked a selection of other individuals to brainstorm ideas on the same topic. The results were clear. The individuals outperformed the brainstorming groups, both in number of ideas and in their quality. Still, another study argued that group brainstorming is less efficient due to what the researchers call “production blocking.” In other words, having everyone thinking about the same idea prevents the parallel processing that makes groups so effective. This single focus of attention becomes a bottleneck.

So, does brainstorming work? Yes, but it is more effective to ask team members to brainstorm individually on an issue and then bring them together to share their ideas. Suggestion – Try this experiment with the teams you lead and see if, over time, individuals are better at brainstorming than your groups as a whole.