Illustration by Sonny Ross

Work Culture

Why most brainstorms don't work


Published on August 08, 2019

Illustration by Sonny Ross

In 1939, a marketer named Alex Osborn needed ideas for an ad campaign. He wanted to push his company outside its comfort zone and create wildly new kinds of advertising. But the traditional approach—delegating the task to one of his employees—wasn’t producing the results he wanted. So he started hosting group meetings, using the collective brainpower of the room to “storm” creative problems. A few years later, he published a book on his methods. The name he chose for his invention: brainstorming.

Osborn’s brainstorming principles will sound familiar to most modern workers, and they’ve held strong for more than 70 years. First, go for a high quantity of ideas—worry less about quality. Second, withhold criticism. Third, embrace wild ideas. Fourth, look for opportunities to combine or mix ideas.

When done with the right group in the right setting, a brainstorm can create a lively, motivating atmosphere, where a modest group can produce hundreds of ideas in the space of 30 minutes. Osborn went on to write two more books on creativity, and to further promote brainstorming as the best method for generating ideas.

There was just one problem. Osborn was wrong.

Why classic brainstorming doesn’t work

Since Osborn’s time, researchers have done dozens of studies on classic brainstorming. The consensus: compared to coming up with ideas as individuals, group brainstorming actually produces fewer ideas—and the ideas tend to be of lower quality. Even some of Osborn’s own research later in life came to similar conclusions.

Three big problems jump out from the research. First, people have a bias toward agreement and conformity. A promising idea early in a brainstorm tends to shape the rest of the session as people gradually fall in line. Second, participants tend to lose their train of thought as other people speak aloud or share in front of the group. Called “production blocking,” this phenomenon actually stymies the generation of new ideas. Third, brainstorm attendees have a bias toward practicality. Despite Osborn’s emphasis on wild ideas, groups tend to favor “reasonable” solutions that sound achievable on paper. In front of so many peers, there’s too much social pressure to risk a wild idea that might fail.

Despite all of brainstorming’s limitations, however, we shouldn’t throw out its methods altogether. Brainstorming has benefits beyond idea generation, benefits that academic studies can’t always capture. Moreover, brainstorming can still work for idea generation—so long as you make a few key changes to the structure and style of the meeting.

More than idea generation

Increasing team motivation
Suppose you’re responsible for coordinating an upcoming company event. You’ve got plenty of ideas, but most of your colleagues seem apathetic. It’s your project, they figure. Why should they care?

Your response: host a brainstorm.

Studies show the very act of brainstorming can help build group motivation as people actively engage with your ideas or react to your thought starters. Even if the group is simply helping you with small piece of the event—like brainstorming the questions for a panel—they’ll be more passionate about the event at large, knowing they helped shape some of the ideas.

That said, be careful with this approach. First, your brainstorm goals should still be genuine. Your primary goal might be amping up the team, but you should still have a secondary goal of getting the team’s real input, even if it’s on a small piece of a larger project.

Second, you still need a high level of trust between the people in the room. Teams with low trust tend to be more quiet or skeptical in a brainstorming environment. In contrast, a team with high trust tends to be invigorated in a creative session, even if the members are reserved by nature. Consider strategically inviting participants who you know can be honest with one another. Or try speaking with more cautious members in advance to build rapport.

Finally, when it comes to building motivation, it pays to inject some friendly competition. Perhaps the person with the wildest idea gets a funny trophy on her desk for a week. Or maybe the guy whose idea gets implemented wins a free lunch. Just don’t overdo it. Small levels of playful competition tend to improve the energy of the room. But raise the stakes too high—with job responsibilities or promotions on the line—and the brainstorm will devolve into suspicion and criticism.

Building consensus

Perhaps even trickier than raising enthusiasm is getting everyone to agree. Maybe your team is happy to engage in planning a company event, but there are three different factions with three different mindsets. Paradoxically, discussing even more ideas in a brainstorm setting can help.

With everyone in the same room, each group can voice their preferred idea. From there, everyone can contribute more solutions, combine ideas, and expand on existing approaches. Twenty minutes later, you’ll have a near-exhaustive list of different perspectives and outside-the-box ideas. Done right, the groups in the room will gradually evolve from feeling ignored to feeling empowered.

From here, you can ask the participants to vote for their favorite ideas. Each person gets a discrete number of votes, usually a fraction of the total ideas on the board: say, 10 votes per person to pick from among 50 total solutions. While some members might lean toward their original perspective, it’s likely several of the new ideas will help to mix things up. What’s more, asking people to vote for multiple items allows them to show support for ideas other than their No. 1 choice.

Once all the voting is over (it might take a couple rounds), people will be much more likely to buy into the solution with the most support—even if they didn’t vote for it. Simply being part of the process is enough for people to feel they had their say, and that they participated in the ultimate outcome.

Just be careful not to wield brainstorming’s consensus-building power too carelessly. For big company decisions, or policies that might disadvantage one group in favor of another, a quick brainstorm session can lead to a bad outcome. It’s all too easy to devolve into groupthink, where the room feels great about a pat solution to a complex problem. Instead, save consensus-by-brainstorm for those lingering, medium-sized problems that have already hung around longer than they should.

6 techniques that make for a better brainstorm

Suppose, however, that your goal really is idea generation. You’re happy with the team’s motivation, you’ve got everyone in sync, but you simply need a longer list of creative solutions. Try reorganizing your brainstorm in one of the following ways. Each approach maximizes the best parts of brainstorming while avoiding the pitfalls.

  • Include some quiet/individual time during the brainstorm session. By interspersing personal brainstorming with bursts of group collaboration, you’ll give people space to get out all their ideas, and they’ll feel more comfortable thinking outside the box.
  • Sharpen the brainstorm focus. Instead of brainstorming “marketing ideas,” zoom in on “social campaigns for summer activities.” The more specific the category, the less time it takes to get the room in the right mindset, and the faster you’ll get to unexpected suggestions.
  • Do half the brainstorm before the brainstorm. Have everyone make a list of ideas before arriving at the meeting. This way, you can nail Osborn’s first three principles in advance, then focus on the collaborative fun as a group.
  • Vary the size of the group throughout. Studies suggest a single, static group will encounter the most problems: an overly loud participant dominating the group, a few attendees who never speak, a series of ideas that go unvoiced. But by having various members leave and return—or mixing and matching small groups throughout an hour of brainstorming—you tend to get more ideas, with more variety.
  • Embrace digital brainstorming. Open a spreadsheet or start a Dropbox Paper doc, then schedule a half hour where everyone adds ideas. It might sound odd to purposely avoid a face-to-face creative session, but many studies suggest digital brainstorms simply work better for getting more ideas. Participants experience far less production blocking, and they’re less afraid to contribute risky or unexpected ideas.
  • Brainstorm something other than solutions. Many brainstorms ask participants to solve a problem. How do we fix this? What do we do? Unfortunately, the pressure to find the perfect answer leads to all the usual shortcomings: a bias toward practicality, a fear of looking foolish, and so on. Instead, try a brainstorm where the participants try to list the most pressing questions. Or a word-association brainstorm. Or a brainstorm based on creating a collaborative mood board of images and photos. While brainstorms like these seem less practical at the outset, they tend to help the team approach old problems in entirely new ways.

    Start your digital brainstorm with Dropbox Paper→