Brainstorming

Brainstorming. It doesn’t work but is it still useful?

The idea of Brainstorming was first articulated by the Ad man Alex Osborn in his 1948 bestseller “Your Creative Power”. Since then it’s gone on to be a widely used technique in many a consultant and manager’s tool kit. One of the central tenets of Brainstorming is to remove criticism and negative feedback allowing people to contribute ideas no matter how far fetched or seemingly ridiculous.

In a recent New Yorker article, “Group think, The brainstorming myth” Jonah Lehrer examined some of the empirical testing of  the brainstorming process and found that again and again, rather than unleashing creativity, brainstorming generates far fewer ideas than the same number of people working on their own and later pooling their ideas. Studies seem to show that debate and criticism actually stimulate creativity not stifle it.

Drawing from a range of sources including a study of teams putting together Broadway musicals, Harvard Medical School research on the impact of physical proximity in research groups and the experiences of  those having worked at Building 20 at MIT, Lehrer concludes that the key to unleashing creativity rests on getting the group composition right then enabling the interaction of different perspectives.

Why then is Brainstorming still so popular? I would argue that part of it is certainly the “feel good” factor that people get from inhabiting a “criticism free zone”.  As a tool, used carefully, it may still serve as a useful technique for a range of reasons not articulated in the article.

Employees who feel good are more likely to contribute discretionary effort. When group dynamics or power structures don’t allow the ventilation of particular viewpoints it might act as a circuit breaker to free up communication. It could be useful in team building, perhaps to empower marginalised employees?

What are your thoughts and experiences?