Why Businesses need to Rethink Brainstorming Sessions

May 29, 2017 - 4 minutes read

In the 1950s, Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, introduced a technique to spark group creativity and enhance performance. Today the technique is used by corporates, social groups and even by writers to generate new ideas by utilising four basic rules:

  • Generate as many ideas as possible
  • Prioritise original and unique ideas
  • Combine and fine tune the ideas generated
  • Refrain from criticism during the session

The technique was called ‘brainstorming’. You’ve probably used it at some point, be it to decide on a holiday destination or a party theme. It seems to work, doesn’t it? Because at the end of the session you probably have a better idea of what you want or even be certain of what you don’t want!

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Brainstorming definitely helps in decision making but after six decades there is still very little scientific evidence to prove that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of people would produce, working individually.

In fact, evidence indicates that brainstorming actually hampers creative performance, dragging down power performers to the level of the rest. Particularly, in large groups where performance is oral and closely monitored, brainstorming reduces productivity and participants feel their individual efforts don’t amount to much in the group.

There are a few reason behind why brainstorming doesn’t prove useful in group sessions.

Social loafing

A tendency, also termed “free riding”, where people working in a group put in less of an effort than they would when working on their own. They would reason “Everyone else is going to slack off so I will slack off a too because it’s not fair that I do more work than the others.” Max Ringelmann, one of the founders of social psychology found through an experiment that the larger a group, the lesser work they accomplished.

Evaluation apprehension

Although criticism isn’t allowed in group brainstorming, we are constantly aware of others opinion of our ideas. When people worry about others scrutinising their input, the introverted and less confident members of the group tend to contribute less than they would in a personal workspace.

Regression to the mean

In a group with unmatched skills, the productivity of the power performers degrade to match the performance of their less talented counterparts. This is often evident in sports and makes for an overall mediocre team.

Production blocking

Regardless of the size of the group, ideas can only be expressed one at a time. Increasing the size of a group actually leads to a decline in the number of ideas contributed from each participant. This might mean that a good idea gets dismissed or forgotten while waiting it’s turn.

Don’t drop it just yet

Even with all of the above negatives, brainstorming is widely adopted and has it’s fair share of benefits in helping make decisions. This is because groups have a natural flair for the evaluation of ideas rather than their creation. If we use brainstorming to evaluate ideas that people come up with on their own, we would probably have more unique ideas float through. From there you could use the group effort to combine and fine tune those ideas together.

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