Is Brainstorming Dead?

May 1, 2014 Brian Beattie

At least once this week you have received an invite for a brainstorming session (and I bet you just groaned at seeing the word “brainstorming”). Now mostly dreaded by individuals, many are asking if these sessions even work. Is creativity being stifled or is it flourishing? Should we do something else instead?

For the past couple of years, brainstorming has been coming under fire starting in 2012 with neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer’s article in The New Yorker expressing very vocal criticism of the practice, and today more and more empirical evidence is showing that brainstorming is not as effective as we once thought.

Developed by Alex Osborn in the late 1940s, Osborn proposed that if groups followed his new idea generation method called “brainstorming”, they would have exponentially more ideas and be more creative.

His process was this:

  1. Generate as many ideas as possible
  2. Defer judgement on all ideas
  3. Generate wild ideas
  4. Build upon each other’s ideas

Osborn believed that critiquing ideas stifled creativity, and having an environment without criticism would give people the confidence to suggest ideas, no matter how crazy. But was Osborn correct? Research says no.

In a 2003 study by Charlan Nemeth, she discovered that debate and criticism over ideas leads to more stimulation and new concepts, than a session without. Dissent allows for people to incorporate other’s viewpoints and reassess their opinion, which leads to new ideas.

Contrary to Osborn’s belief, criticism is good when coming up with new ideas, but is the team setting still the ideal approach? That is also a negative.

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has stated that decades of research has shown that people who work alone then pool their ideas with a team, create more ideas than when brainstorming in groups.

Why is that? Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, explains that people are more creative when they have privacy, and are free from distractions or interruptions.

The creative process is inherently introverted; that’s why some of our greatest innovators – Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Mark Zuckerberg – have been introverts. Introversion stimulates creativity by focusing on the tasks at hand, instead of wasting energy on trivial matters not related to work, as explained by psychologist Hans Eysenek.

Does this mean that you need to be an introvert to be a creative genius? Absolutely not. But by recognizing how the creative process works in our brains, it will be fruitful for even the most extroverted of people to take a few minutes by themselves when trying to come up with some ideas for their latest project.

So the next time that you need your team to come up with ideas, instead of brainstorming do this: have everyone come up with ideas on their own then regroup and pool all the ideas together.

If the right strategy isn’t already within the pool of ideas, from there it is easier to combine/play off of/debate the current ideas to come up with a solution.

Your Turn

What are your thoughts on brainstorming? Do you use the traditional method or have an alternative? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author

Brian Beattie

Brian Beattie is the Chief Financial Officer at Volaris Group. Besides overseeing the financial health of the company, he works closely with Volaris’ legal and M&A team on all new acquisitions. Brian is an expert on every stage of the M&A process – from sending out the non-disclosure agreement to executing the sales purchase agreement.

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