Hi there, Matt here.
I’ve started 2022 by spending a few weeks of time off from work. Not on a real vacation, say — just giving myself lots of time to do nothing. Of course, lots of writing and reading and tinkering fills the space.
One reflection that keeps coming to me is just how much time I usually spend in meetings. And in the absence of those meetings, I’m more productive, but also more fulfilled. In pulling at that thread, I wanted to learn more about one of the most common fixtures of meetings: brainstorming. So today’s essay is all about the history of brainstorming, the research on why it doesn’t work, and what to do (or not do) instead.
A quick song to start: I’m a sucker for dry, skittering drums tightly locked with mellow, funky bass lines. Combine that with a bed of atmospheric synths and guitars, and you’ve got Louis Prince’s “The Number Thirteen.” Also, the music video (dither-heavy hypercard inspired visuals!) is brilliant. Please watch.
Now, on to the essay. As usual, you can also read it on my website if you prefer. And as always, thank you for subscribing.
“Brainstorming” — the problem-solving technique of coming up with as many ideas as possible in a short period of time — has been showing up on a lot of my leadership meeting agendas lately. Many of my peers are employing brainstorming in the belief that, as thought-leading creative consultancy Ideo puts it, “the more ideas you come up with, the better chance you have to reach a truly brilliant solution.” Here’s a little more about Ideo and brainstorming from a 2001 Fast Company piece:
Silicon Valley-based Ideo has sparked some of the most innovative products of the past decade — the Apple mouse, the Polaroid I-Zone Pocket Camera, and the Palm V, among others. But Ideo staffers don’t just sit around waiting for good ideas to pop into their heads. The company has institutionalized a process whereby ideas are coaxed to the surface through regular, structured brainstorming sessions. At Ideo, idea-generation exercises are “practically a religion,” [Tom Kelley, partner at Ideo] says.
The quote goes on:
On any given day, multiple brainstorming sessions may spawn hundreds of ideas and burn through just as many chocolate-chip cookies, the preferred fuel of world-class idea mongers. Indeed, collective idea generation is so important at Ideo that a staffer caught trying to noodle a problem alone at his desk may be called on the carpet for wasting his time and the client’s money.
Even though the days when anyone thought the Polaroid I-Zone Pocket Camera was innovative are long since gone, brainstorming continues to be popular.
You’ve read the title, so you know where this is going: Brainstorming is bad. At its best, a brainstorming group comes up with the same ideas as the group’s members would when working alone; at its worst, it perpetuates negative cultural habits, reinforces hierarchies, stunts productivity, and severely limits creativity.
No matter how many chocolate chip cookies I eat, I can’t seem to make this kind of brainstorming work. So I’ve spent some time researching why brainstorming ever came to be so popular, the science behind its lack of results, and any possible remedy to this leech of a collaborative practice.
Here’s what I learned.
Alex Osborn was born in 1888. Throughout his life, he’d be one of the most influential creative thinkers in America, producing ads for clients like General Electric, Chrysler, American Tobacco, B.F. Goodrich, and Du Pont. His initial would join those of his partners Batten, Barton, and Durstine in the agency BBDO, which continues to be one of the most prolific ad agencies in the world.
In 1948, Osborn published Your Creative Power, a book of the accumulated wisdom of his decades of experience in the ad industry. Most of the anecdotes and advice are based on Osborn’s successes; through tales of award-winning campaigns, creative breakthroughs, and many rounds of golf, he lays down a framework for creative thinking that is accessible to the anyman.
In chapter 33 of Your Creative Power, Osborn introduces the world to brainstorming:
Every day, everywhere in a democracy, juries are proving that a dozen minds can jointly judge and judge well. But that’s judicial thinking; how about creative thinking? Can a squad produce ideas? The answer is yes. Properly organized and run, a group can be a gold-mine of ideas. It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “Brainstorm Sessions”; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” means using the brain to storm a creative problem—and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.
Osborn goes on to define the parameters of a successful brainstorm. How many people should be included? “Between five and ten.” What kind of people? “Both brass and rookies.” What kind of problems should be tackled? “The problems should be specific rather than general.” Should we include the womenfolk? “A group of men seems best; but our Vice-President, Mrs. Jean Rindlaub, has had great success with groups of young women.”
The key to Osborn’s brainstorming meetings is to eliminate what he calls judicial thinking. “The crazier the idea, the better,” he claims; the group should defer judgment, think outside the box and go for quantity; “the more ideas we pile up, the more likelihood of winners.”
It’s hard to deny the appeal of brainstorming. To be given a judgment-free space to express yourself? What a dream! And especially appealing, imagine, to the ad men of the 1940s.
But it isn’t the 1940s anymore. Brainstorming doesn’t work.
Maybe it never did.
In 1987, Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle,” in which they analyzed 22 former studies of brainstorming. The first of these studies was conducted in 1958, just a decade after Osborn’s book was published. In that study, forty-eight students were asked to solve a series of puzzles. Some participants were grouped together to solve the problems following Osborn’s framework; others were asked to solve the puzzles by themselves. The result was clear: Those who worked alone solved twice as many solutions as those who worked in groups. The solo solvers also came up with more “feasible” solutions than the groups, according to a panel of judges.
The other 21 studies that Diehl and Stroebe analyzed followed these initial results: brainstorming had no appreciable effect on creativity or problem-solving ability. In many cases like the first, brainstorming was worse for thinkers than working alone.
The authors of the 1987 paper theorized three possible sources of brainstorming’s failures, all which still ring true in group creativity exercises.
But Diehl and Stroebe’s paper isn’t the final word on the effectiveness of brainstorming: Another paper published by the Creative Problem Solving Group in Buffalo (or CPSB) provided counter-arguments, along with nearly 100 studies, demonstrating that brainstorming can be successful, as long as the facilitator of the brainstorm is properly trained. CPSB also happens to sell facilitator training services. Go figure.
The truth is that a properly-trained facilitator can only unlock a group’s creativity if they’re invited to the brainstorm; in my experience, brainstorming activities tend to be led by a senior stakeholder or group leader instead. The leader hopes the participants will help them solve a very specific problem; the ideas the group produces weave an iterative or incremental path through the solution space. Eventually the group arrives at “alignment” on a single solution. Divergent thinking is discouraged. Most of the ideas are forgotten.
So Osborn’s version of brainstorming is a nonstarter. Can we do any better?
There are plenty of articles and essays and journal papers that call into question the effectiveness of brainstorming. Almost all of these proceed to recommend ways to “fix” brainstorming. Here’s a few:
Tony McCaffrey invented (and trademarked) “Brainswarming™” after being inspired by the behavior of ants searching for food. The gist is that the problem-solving group lays their ideas out in a visual relationship, drawing lines to connect resources to the problems they might solve. McCaffrey claims that Brainswarming™ produces “up to 115 ideas in 15 minutes.”2
While working with teams at Google, Jake Knapp experienced the downsides of large-group brainstorming. “What happened in the weeks and months after each brainstorm? The results were depressing. Not a single new idea generated in the brainstorms had been built or launched. The best ideas — the solutions that teams actually executed — came from individual work.” His solution was the design sprint, in which you “take a small team, clear the schedule for a week, and rapidly progress from problem to tested solution.” Knapp wrote a book on the design sprint and facilitates workshops on the method.3
There are plenty of other frameworks and exercises that don’t require buying books. The 6-3-5 method, for example, asks six people to each write down three ideas in five minutes. After six rounds of this over 30 minutes, you have 108 ideas — a far cry from McCaffrey’s 115 ideas in 15 minutes, but hey, who’s counting? The Five Whys is another common tool: a group iterates through the analysis of a problem (asking “why” at each stage) to uncover its root cause.
Each of these variations fails to address the critical factor in the failure of brainstorm. It’s not the presence of a facilitator, the amount of time the team has, the diagrams they draw, or the language they use.
It’s the group itself.
In Diehl and Stroebe’s paper, their analysis highlights the fundamental weakness of group collaboration: cultural norms tied to the deep-rooted instincts of a social animal. We’ve evolved over millions of years to work within groups in very specific ways; no book, workshop, or thought leadership blog will fully rewire our brains.
Here’s the conclusion of Diehl and Stroebe’s paper:
Because blocking slows down the generation of ideas in groups, it might be more effective to ask subjects first to develop their ideas in individual sessions and next have these ideas discussed and evaluated in a group session.
Ideas are best developed by individuals.4
Why, then, did Osborn get so excited about brainstorming? What problem are leaders trying to solve? If individuals are just as good at coming up with ideas, why put them in a group and risk their productivity?
Because ideas, no matter who comes up with them, need to be shared. Effective collaboration relies on constant communication of ideas — between individuals, in small groups, and to all-encompassing audiences.
Osborn’s brainstorming meetings weren’t successful because he put a bunch of scotch-sipping ad men in a room together. It was successful because, maybe for the first time in their careers, these creative thinkers were told “We won’t tell you your idea is bad.” Page 270 of Your Creative Power:
Here’s how one leader interpreted the first rule to one of his [brainstorming] groups: “If you try to get hot and cold water out of the same faucet at the same time, you will get only tepid water. And if you try to criticize and create at the same time, you can’t turn on either cold enough criticism or hot enough ideas. So let’s stick solely to ideas—let’s cut out all criticism during this session.”
What Osborn is getting at is psychological safety. It’s the feeling that you can show up to work without the fear that your contributions will have negative consequences to your self-image, status, or career.
Psychological safety wasn’t explored explicitly until the 1990s, with William A. Kahn’s “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.”5 In this sense, Osborn was way ahead of the curve; creating the conditions for psychological safety meant that the creatives of BBDO could share their ideas, no matter how unusual, conventional, boring, or controversial. Nobody was judged. Simply having ideas was rewarded.
This is the part that most leaders miss about brainstorming. If a group feels psychologically safe, they’ll be just as effective coming up with ideas on their own and sharing them as they go. If there’s no psychological safety, the team isn’t performing at their best, and a brainstorm is only going to exacerbate fears of negative judgment.
Brainstorming has become a heuristic, an attempted shortcut, a lossy substitution for psychological safety. Osborn’s encouragement during the brainstorm signaled psychological safety, giving his team what they needed to be creative even after they left the room. But simply putting a bunch of people on a Zoom call and saying “there are no bad ideas” won’t create a sense of safety where none existed before.
How to build psychological safety on a creative team is beyond the scope of this one essay (though I have a feeling I’ll write another and link it soon). But my point is this: Brainstorming is just a worse version of creativity. If your team is already producing lots of ideas, let them keep doing it however they want. If your team isn’t producing lots of ideas, work on psychological safety.
Whatever you do, don’t schedule a brainstorm.
Diehl, Michael, and Wolfgang Stroebe. “Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53, no. 3 (September 1987): 497–509. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527. ↩
McCaffrey, Tony. “Why You Should Stop Brainstorming.” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/03/why-you-should-stop-brainstorming. ↩
Jake Knapp, “Stop Brainstorming, Start Sprinting,” TheSprintBook.com, https://www.thesprintbook.com/articles/stop-brainstorming-start-sprinting. Last accessed January 17, 2022. ↩
If your goal is something other than “come up with lots of ideas,” there are certainly ways to have effective group meetings. Diehl and Stroebe concluded that if the goal is idea quality, it would be more effective for individuals to come to a meeting with ideas already formed, then have the group discuss/evaluate. These meetings are “subtractive,” to contrast with brainstorming’s “additive” goal: after a critique, you have fewer, better ideas. ↩
Kahn, William A., “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” Academy of Management Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1, 1990): 692–724. http://doi.org/10.5465/256287. ↩