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You have been asked by the senior team to come up with ways to increase profitability. Common corporate practice is to gather a group in a brainstorming session to work it out. After all, two heads are better than one, right?

Not so fast.

BRAINSTORMING may not be quite the invaluable instrument in the team toolkit we have been led to believe, particularly if it is not done right.

How effective is brainstorming? According to researchers, not very. In fact, in a Diehl and Strobe meta-analysis of 22 research studies on brainstorming, 18 of these studies demonstrated that people were more effective thinking alone than in groups. Individuals working alone typically came up with more ideas than did the brainstorming groups.

So why do we continue to give brainstorming a prominent place in our team toolkit? First of all, it does have its place, and is certainly not useless. Those of us who have participated in successful brainstorming sessions can relate.

According to Dutch psychologist Bernard Nijstad, there are psychological reasons this practice continues.

First, when working in a team, the pressure to come up with ideas is spread across the group. This takes the weight off the individual to generate all ideas. We get the sense that many ideas have been generated, and therefore we don’t have to work as hard. We feel that because the quantity of thoughts generated by the group exceeds the quantity we might generate as individuals, brainstorming must be better.

In a follow-up Nijstad study, students were asked to work either alone or as a group to identify ways to promote tourism. It was found that students who worked in groups were much more satisfied personally, and were convinced that they had generated better ideas, than those who worked individually. Surprisingly, however, they had fewer ideas than those generated by pooling the thoughts generated by those working as individuals. Yet they felt better.

There are reasons why we might feel better about ourselves when we brainstorm. One of these is “memory confusion,” which is the notion that when working as a group we may confuse ideas generated by the group with ideas generated by ourselves—our own ideas. The belief that these were actually our ideas leaves us feeling better about ourselves and our creative abilities.

Second, the concept of “social comparison” kicks in—we see that the generation of ideas is also difficult for others, and that maybe we aren’t so lacking in creativity as we thought. In other words, we’re not as boring as we had supposed. Instant feel-good.

Brainstorming effectiveness is also complicated by other factors. These include freeloading (letting others take over and keeping thoughts to oneself), apprehension (a fear that one’s ideas are not as good as others’), and blocking.

Blocking involves “waiting ones’ turn.” Even when we might indicate it’s a free-for-all, brainstorming does involve some degree of etiquette. We must wait until someone else has finished expressing a thought before we are able to do so. We also wait for the group’s appointed scribe to accurately record (write on the whiteboard, note on the flipchart, etc.) the idea. In waiting, we halt the ability for the brain to generate new thought, as we can only entertain one idea at a time. By the time we are able to speak, we may have lost valuable thought-generating time. Our ideas may be forgotten before we can interject our insight.

Keep in mind, brainstorming does have some benefits, and is still valuable for teams. Below are three ideas which can help us take advantage of brainstorming as a tool:

  1. Keep brainstorming groups to a maximum of three or four people. Studies have shown that small groups of three or four working together are more effective than the same number of individuals working separately. This changes once the group exceeds four, however, where effectiveness is reduced.
  2. Mix it up a little. A little new blood on a brainstorming team has shown to boost group creativity. Even rotating one person increases group creativity when compared to long-term teams. Diverse teams, including those from other disciplines, also tend to promote more idea generation than those in which groups are more homogenous.
  3. Do some homework. Before pooling ideas in a brainstorming session, team members should do their own individual thinking. Jot some ideas down on paper before discussing as a group.

Throw it out the window? Not yet. Group brainstorming can be very effective. However, keep in mind that two heads are not always better than one.

Tracy Maylett
Tracy Maylett

Tracy is the Chief Executive Officer and President of DecisionWise, and is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. View Bio

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1 comment — View
  • Excellent insights. At the KM Institute we teach an ‘innovation’ variation of the traditional K Cafe, which works very well, because it leverages the above research findings.

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