Against brainstorming

by on February 6, 2006 at 5:26 am in Education | Permalink

Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity”. But why does this illusion persist?

Bernard Nijstad and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam argue it’s because when we’re in a group, other people are talking, the pressure isn’t always on us and so we’re less aware of all the times that we fail to think of a new idea. By contrast, when we’re working alone and we can’t think of anything, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re failing…

The researchers said “We suggest that working in a group may lead to a sense of continuous activity. This may provide group members with the idea that they are productive, because they feel that the group as a whole is making progress, even if they themselves are not contributing”.

Other possible reasons for why people think they work better in groups include ‘memory confusion’, the idea that after working in groups people subsequently mistake other people’s ideas for the own, and ‘social comparison’, the idea that in groups people are able to see how difficult everyone else has found it to come up with ideas too.

Here is more, including a link to the paper.  Deep in my bones I know this to be true.  Unless, of course, brainstorming helps you self-acculturate into a group…

1 Bill Stepp February 6, 2006 at 7:50 am

While sales are down, more music is being produced and heard than ever
before in history.

Seems to call into question the case for copyright, especially
as put forth by Richard Epstein, doesn’t it?

2 Sandy Smith February 6, 2006 at 9:05 am

What about the sense of instant vetting? I usually find that collaborating with somebody increases the quality of the resulting ideas, if not their number. On my own, a lot of those extra ideas are going to concern a young lass (or two or more), what I need to do that evening, how cool it would be to be a rock star (after all these years…sigh), and whether the process of creating wrinkly cereal flakes is a 3-d version of the process of drying liquids…and I’m not a physicist. Then there might be something about whatever application I’m supposed to be designing in there, if I have time. In a group, let’s just say that most of the ideas I have that aren’t Simpsons or South Park references or relate to the matter at hand get quashed.

3 PlanMaestro February 6, 2006 at 10:32 am

My experience with succesful brainstorms:

1. Set some vision: most brainstrorms I have participated are passionless.
2. Embrace the constrains: Do not believe the gurus, constrains unleashes creativity. It is precisely the will to break those barriers that moves people
3. Individual Ideas Pre-Session: preparation, preparation, preparation
4. Bring Data: more preparation and more constrains!

In other words I brainstorming more a collaboration tool than a creativity tool .

4 bk February 6, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Notice also that such group efforts which allow everyone to think one individual’s idea was the “group’s” are a good way to transfer credit to executives who don’t always have much to do with actual product creation. (Not to minimize what they do, of course.)

Thus the team ethic transmitted in groupthink sessions has a positive cultural value of socializing employees to accepting the way the given system values each person’s input and output. This keeps them happier than they might otherwise be, at least on a conscious level.

In other words, it’s all a very necessary cultural fiction.

5 Robert Saunders February 6, 2006 at 5:50 pm

Most brainstorming sucks, but that’s because the leaders of those sessions don’t know what they’re doing, and the people who participate don’t know what they’re doing. Usually it’s somebody (some guy, a boss usually) who stands up there and collects ideas, but only writes up edited versions on the board; the people who contribute tend to be loud or talkers or kiss-asses–people are good at divining what is truly rewarded in the process, usually the ego of the meeting leader.

As a counter-example, look at the examples of design firms like IDEO (

6 Rocco J. Verducci February 7, 2006 at 11:31 am

I have found that brainstorming meetings can be especially productive providing that some rules are adhered to. For instance to avoid people stifling the lift of creative ideas, it is important to suggest that the meeting is to give flight to new thinking and ideas and a “no you can’t do that” is not accepted as long as an alternative idea is opined. The postponement of judgment is critical to the creative process.

I have even had water guns at the meeting so that if negativity or grandstanding was demonstrated, we would just drench the person back to the primary focus of brainstorming. It was actually fun.



7 levan September 6, 2006 at 2:56 am
8 JEROGatch October 24, 2006 at 5:59 am


9 Anonymous October 14, 2008 at 12:47 am

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