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Why Brainstorming is Flawed: Solutions to Better Productivity

Ray Williams
Ray Williams

Alternative solutions to brainstorming

If you walk into a typical team meeting in most organizations you may witness what is called a brainstorming session. Team members may be suggesting ideas either in small groups around a table or at a whiteboard. 

Consultants and trainers frequently use this technique. The purpose of this brainstorming activity is to stimulate creative ideas or solutions for an issue or problem by tapping into the collective wisdom of the group at the same time. The problem is, research shows that brainstorming more often that does not improve productivity, problem-solving or creativity.

Brainstorming beginnings

Brainstorming was popularized by an advertising executive, Alex Osborn, in the 1940s. Since then, it has been widely adopted as a management and work strategy. It is based on these general rules:

  1. Participants suggest as many ideas as possible in a given time period.
  2. The ideas can be prioritized.
  3. The ideas are subsequently combined and/or refined.
  4. Everyone is expected to participate.
  5.  Participants must refrain from criticism or judgment of the ideas suggested.

This brainstorming process is based both on the assumptions that the activity will be motivating for the participants and that the process will produce better results than individual work. In fact, Osborn claimed brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50 percent versus individuals working on their own.

Yet, after more than 60 years of scientific research, there is scant evidence that brainstorming produces better or more ideas than the same number of individuals working alone would produce. What may be even more significant, is that brainstorming can actually hamper creativity.

A study entitled “Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming,” by researchers Nichols Kohn and Steven Smith at Texas A&M University, and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, shows that brainstorming may not be the best strategy to generate unique and varied ideas. 

The researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, leading eventually to a conformity of ideas. Lead researcher Nicholas Kohn explains, "Fixation to other people's ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative."

A meta-analytic review of more than 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written. Another problem is that teams tend to give up when they notice that their efforts aren’t producing very much.

Brainstorming seems to an enshrined process because group work is the cornerstone of most organizations today. Ben Jones of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University analyzed over 19 million peer-reviewed academic papers and more than 2 million patents for the past 50 years to show that levels of teamwork have increased more than 95 percent in scientific fields. Charlan Nemeth of the University of California argues that one of the problems with brainstorming is that participants receive little or no training in brainstorming methodology, so their results are suspect. 

Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, summarized much of the research on brainstorming. 

She concluded that individuals are better at divergent thinking--thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas--whereas groups are better at convergent thinking--selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Why brainstorming is flawed

There are a number of reasons why the tactic doesn't work, from insecurity to sticking with the first idea, here’s a quick summary of the reasons why brainstorming doesn’t work:

  • The group goes with the first idea. From a psychologist’s perspective, this is also called anchoring. We develop a bias to go with the first idea that is suggested, and there’s a bias thereafter to consider any other ideas. Subsequently, an inordinate amount of time is spent discussion the first idea in comparison with the others;

  • “Groupthink” develops. Generally, people want to avoid conflict and they want to help by agreeing with someone else’s idea, even if we have better ideas of our own. Extraverts and dominating people tend to talk first and loudest and control the conversation, and then others tend to follow along.

  • Criticism and civil debate are stifled. One of the rules of brainstorming is that the sessions are uncritical environments where anyone can have an idea without the worry of feeling stupid. This is intended to enhance creativity and let the introverts or shy people participate more. But the problem is that idea that clearly lacks merit or substance are artificially entertained.

  • Time pressure. Usually, a brainstorming session is timed, and the group is expected to come up with ideas that will be adopted in a relatively short time frame, or even in a competitive environment when groups are compared. In research published in the Harvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, showed that pressure is almost always terrible for creative thinking.

  • Social loafing. There’s a tendency – also known as free riding – for people to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than alone. 

  • Social anxiety. Group participants worry about other group members’ perceptions of their ideas.

  • Production blocking. Because group participants can only express a single idea at one time, so that other group members can hear them, the number of suggestions generated in a group plateaus,  and the larger the group actually declines.

 Alternatives to brainstorming

Thompson makes several recommendations on how to improve brainstorming. One example is called “brainwriting,”  in which participants write their ideas down silently; then after ideas have been captured, they are shared in the group; then the participants can build on each other’s ideas.

Another approach is to have each participant write down one idea, then pass it to the person on the right or left in the group. That person’s task is to elaborate on the first idea, then pass it on to the next person. The process is repeated until every person in the group has elaborated on each person’s original idea. Then the ideas are shared in the group.

Cognitive psychologist Tony McCaffrey proposes another, cooperative alternative. McCaffrey suggests an approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. Brainswarming begins by placing a goal or problem at the top of a whiteboard, then listing the resources available to meet these problems at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end. McCaffrey has found that natural “top-down” thinkers will begin refining the goal, while “bottom-up” thinkers will either add more resources or analyze how resources can be used to solve problems. The magic happens in the middle, where these two approaches connect.

 Finally, an approach which is an alternative to brainstorming is just not to use it, but ask people individually to work on their own and suggest ideas.  

 See related: Get on the Same Page: Collaboration Tools for Small Business



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Ray Williams
Ray Williams Member
Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He brings over 35 years experience to his clients as a CEO, and senior HR executive and professional speaker. Ray is the recipient of the Master Educator Award from the American Society of Education Executives, and is also past President of the International Coach Federation and Governor of the National Staff Development Council in the U.S. He has clients in Fortune 500 companies, Best Managed Companies in Canada and small to medium sized businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the world in the areas of leadership, workplace culture, team development and peak performance. He has been very active in such organizations as the Vancouver Board of Trade, having served as a Director and Vice-Chair. Ray has written for or been interviewed by The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, NBC News, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, MacLean’s, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, Salon, and dozens of other and other national and international publications having published more than 300 articles. He is author of a new best selling book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Navigate Chaotic Workplaces. He has also written a book on educational leadership, The Leadership Edge, a personal growth book, Breaking Bad Habits, and was contributing author to Systemic Change, and the Best Seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He has also written a novel and screenplay entitled Dragon Tamer.