Analysis: Decades of research on brainstorms show that individuals are very often more productive on their own than in brainstorming groups
Brainstorming was first introduced into organisations as a means of industrialising creativity. The technique was devised to enhance the creative output of organisations by harnessing the creativity and productivity potential of groups. The practice was conceived by psychologists who studied the cognitive process of having ideas and developed the 'how to' principles of what we know today as brainstorming.
They came up with the rules such as suspending criticism and judgement, aiming for quantity over quality first, and holding that every participant must contribute equally. Having a facilitator lead a brainstorming session has been shown to improve both the productivity and creativity of groups, whilst reducing some of the drawbacks of brainstorms – conflict, communication barriers, handling people who seek to opt out, to dominate or to actively detract from the task.
Decades of research on brainstorms show that individuals are very often more productive than brainstorming groups. So why do brainstorms fail?
I'm a big fan of brainstorms – just not of the ones that seep the very life from me and others because their existence was the first in a long line of bad ideas.
Brainstorms are very often applied to tasks that are quite simply, better suited to individuals. They are sometimes thought to be an appropriate response to any manner of problem or task and this is not true. Any list-making task, for example, is better suited to individual thought rather than to group work. Studies show that if I sat down to come up with the best holiday ideas in Ireland, I am more likely to come up with a longer list on my own than the list generated by a brainstorm group.
Brainstorms don't always have to be group activities. In fact, most of us are well able to facilitate a brainstorm with ourselves and we do it all the time. We just don’t schedule it or run it like a process - although I do, but that’s another days work! Individuals don’t have to deal with conflict (other than the internal kind), communication barriers, or social interaction complexities like dealing with difficult people so productivity increases. Rather than flog a dead idea, organisations should involve the brainstorming creativity of individuals in appropriate ways.
In organisations prone to hosting frequent brainstorms as a means of problem solving or idea generation, an eye-rolling ‘not another one of these’ attitude can take hold. One likely reason for this is that brainstorms are applied as a blunt instrument rather than thoughtfully tailored to the task at hand.
Brainstorms that are well planned, organised, structured, facilitated and followed up with action have the potential to harness the talents and ideas from a group
Another reason may be the uncomfortable inclusion of ice-breaker tasks, games, role-play and other techniques that are designed to push people out of their comfort zones and alter their modes of thought. When planned and executed well, such tactics can move people into a different thinking path, unite groups that were previously disjointed and create a sense of an ‘other place’ that is not business as usual and is thus more conducive to breakthrough creativity. The tactics are not ‘just for fun’ but have the danger of falling into the playpen territory if not well thought through or well executed.
The term brainstorm is a broad church – it covers a multitude of group meeting formats as we understand it to be shorthand for harnessing inter-disciplinary creativity in a focussed way. It can refer to the act of solving a menial, immediate or well-understood task or it can describe the engagement of experts in complex interdisciplinary problem solving and idea generation. It can even refer to a website. I’m a big fan of brainstorms – just not of the ones that seep the very life from me and others because their existence was the first in a long line of bad ideas.
With all of this negativity, why do we bother at all with brainstorms? We persist with them because what we lose in productivity, we gain in creativity. Brainstorms involving diverse, engaged and talented individuals are shown to be less productive, but more creative than individuals. They produce less ideas, but the ideas they produce are of a higher quality and more unique and the chances of a radical breakthrough go up in this context.
Breakthroughs are more likely to emerge from special spaces created for a group of people to engage in common pursuit
Brainstorms that are well planned, organised, structured, facilitated and followed up with action have the potential to effectively harness the talents and ideas from a group of individuals. Brainstorms are special, important and worthy of the attention they receive because they are a vehicle to creating something that could never have emerged from any one individual. They are a living manifestation of the whole being greater, more unique and utterly discreet from the sum of the parts. Breakthroughs are more likely to emerge from special spaces created for a group of people to engage in common pursuit.
Here are 10 questions to consider the next time you or your organisation think you need a brainstorming session
(1) Do you need to have a brainstorm?
(2) What skills do you need?
(3) Who will lead the group?
(4) Who is best placed to structure and facilitate it?
(5 How will participants be communicated with before, during and after?
(6) What inputs are required?
(7) Where and when should it take place?
(8) How can you create an ‘other space’ away from business as usual?
(9) What resources will enable and motivate people to engage fully?
(10) What will happen afterwards?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ