Employee Engagement | Learning and Development | Performance

Need Creative Ideas? Quit Brainstorming

An illustration of a group of employees brain storming in frustration

Remember the days when a team huddled around a whiteboard for a brainstorming session, and people shouted out ideas that were quickly scribbled down? The energy in the air was palpable. At the end of the meeting, everyone high-fived each other for the amazing ideas generated, basking in a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment.

However, weeks later, not a single idea had been implemented. Some suggestions were found to be unfeasible, while others were just variants of things that had been tried before. Yet, the exhilarating memory of brilliant minds working together to accomplish something greater than the sum of its parts remained.

Managers often recall brainstorming sessions as founts of ingenuity and innovation, but in reality, the number of actionable, creative ideas generated is usually dismal. So why is brainstorming such a staple of the modern workplace, to the extent that many leaders view it as a major reason to bring employees back to the office?

The belief that brainstorming works is so ingrained that many don’t even question its validity. The practice traces its roots to ad executive Alex Osborn, who introduced the concept of brainstorming in his 1953 book “Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.” Osborn established four rules for the process, which he said was best accomplished in groups of five to 12 people: 1) generate as many ideas as possible, 2) refrain from criticism, 3) encourage wild ideas, and 4) combine or improve upon each others’ ideas.

The process remains largely the same today: Gather a group of people with diverse experiences and knowledge and have them throw out as many ideas as possible, hoping the best ones stick. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect creative sparks will fly in such a synergetic environment.

Also, the concept of brainstorming just feels right. It’s inclusive (at least in theory) and democratic, with the entire team playing a role in determining the best course of action rather than an autocratic decision coming down from on high. Because the team has a feeling of collective ownership of the ideas generated, it’s a great way to rally support and buy-in for a new initiative — or spread the blame for a failed approach.

However, after decades of research, very little evidence indicates traditional brainstorming actually enhances creativity. On the contrary, much evidence suggests the opposite: A meta-analysis of more than 800 teams revealed that individuals generate more original ideas, and higher-quality ones, when they don’t interact with others.

Why brainstorming doesn’t work

Most brainstorming sessions look similar: A few confident, talkative people dominate the conversation, whereas quieter co-workers either don’t participate or self-consciously mumble ideas that are usually overlooked. However, charisma and the ability to think on one’s feet don’t equal creativity — shy co-workers might keep their ingenious ideas to themselves, while motormouths oversell their so-so suggestions.

Speaking up, especially in a group setting, requires a high level of psychological safety — the belief that employees can speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fear of repercussions or judgment — which isn’t the default situation in most workplaces. Also, the perception that others on the team have more expertise inhibits an individual’s creativity during brainstorming. And some ideas may be viewed more or less favorably just because they’re voiced by a member of the office in- or out-group.

Another reason traditional brainstorming doesn’t work is social loafing, or “free riding.” Similar to the bystander effect, social loafing causes us to refrain from participating when we know others will do it. So, instead of really trying to come up with a creative solution, we conserve our cognitive resources and leave the heavy thinking to our co-workers.

Brainstorming sessions are also prone to groupthink, where individuals strive to make their opinion conform with what they believe is the consensus. Instead of minds roaming freely in unique directions, ideas converge. Production blocking also comes into play: Because only one idea can be expressed at a time, the number of ideas per person declines as the group size increases.

Perhaps most importantly, creativity can’t be scheduled. Many people have their best insights in the shower, on a nature hike, or driving in their car. Letting our minds wander with no particular focus tends to generate more “aha” moments than concentrating intently on a problem — particularly in a group setting with the accompanying social pressures.

Better ways to get creative

Luckily, there are ways to harness your team’s knowledge and experience that don’t involve traditional brainstorming. Here are three strategies to try:

  • Question storming: Many of us can recall fruitless brainstorming sessions in which most people lacked knowledge or context of the problem, which limited their ability to suggest viable solutions. Instead of getting the group together to generate ideas, figure out the most important questions with a technique called question storming. Start with a problem, for example, declining sales. Then, allow team members to ask as many questions as they need to gain a complete understanding: How much have sales declined since last year? What factors went into the decline? What have we tried in the past to increase sales? By the end of the session, team members will have the information they need to think about the problem on their own.
  • Brainwriting: Other people’s ideas can spark ideas in our own minds that we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of (a process called “priming” or “cognitive facilitation”) — but social influences often get in the way. One approach to get around them is by reading and writing rather than listening and speaking. In a study of a technique called brainwriting, a group member wrote ideas for possible uses of a paperclip on a piece of paper and passed it to the next person. They read the previous ideas, added their own in a differently colored pen, and passed it on. The results showed that the group of brainwriters produced more ideas than the cumulative ideas of an equal number of writers who didn’t interact during the task.
  • Alternate individual and group sessions: By alternating solitary and group time, teams can reap the benefits of enhanced creativity during solo thinking combined with idea priming during group sessions. For example, a team could begin with question storming to define the problem, followed by time for solo thinking. Then, the group could come together for a brainwriting session. Or, employees could submit ideas in writing to their manager, who could bring the most creative ones to the team for discussion.

Ironically, group interactions can be a source of social and cognitive stimulation as well as interference. Striking the right balance between thinking on one’s own and in groups is the key to generating the most creative ideas to further your organization’s goals.

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