Brainstorming: Generating Ideas or Wasting Time


If you’ve been in PR, marketing or corporate communications for any length of time—more than, say, a couple of months—you most likely know that word well, having already participated in several brainstorming sessions to help come up with a new ground-breaking idea of one sort or another.

Communications practitioners live by brainstorming. They believe it is highly effective.

But according to a number of studies over the past half century, this exercise, first used in the 1940s with the promise of “doubling a group’s creativity,” does not provide more, or better, ideas than other attempts at uncovering great ideas to push our work forward.

Keith Sawyer, a professor of education and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis says: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

It’s not that group collaboration itself is bad. It’s that by eliminating criticism and debate about the merit of the ideas thrown into the brainstorming pot and scribbled on the white board, we leave out key components of group creativity. Brainstorming’s main characteristic—the absence of any form of criticism of a participant’s ideas—may, in fact, be 180 degrees out of sync with what we should be doing.

Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, says,

The only way to maximize group creativity—to make the whole more than the sum of its parts—is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes…. When you believe that your flaws will be quickly corrected by the group, you’re less worried about perfecting your contribution, which leads to a more candid conversation. We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.

Professor Sawyer is an advocate of creative collaboration, but he says on a website about his latest book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:

But only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—improvisations that are guided and planned, but in a way that doesn’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. For example, studies of brainstorming have shown that in most cases this popular technique is a waste of time. The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Over the years, I’ve participated in hundreds of brainstorming sessions that have led to thousands of ideas. Some seemed pretty good, innovative, and useful. So, I’m not totally convinced that brainstorming results in little of value. But I have no way of knowing now if we would have generated better ideas had we approached brainstorming differently or, perhaps, had each of us worked on the problems alone at first and then collaborated and critically discussed each other’s ideas.