Stop brainstorming

Brainstorming sounds great in theory.

You get everyone regardless of skill or experience to sit around a table or in a Zoom meeting and come up with ideas.

What kind of ideas? Any old ideas without rhyme or reason, judiciousness or judgement.

The more ideas the better. Just keep spewing ‘em out. Then step back and pick through them to find the best.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. Why pay for expensive creative consultants when you might be able to strike it rich by chance alone?

At best, a group brainstorming session comes up with the same ideas as the group’s members would when working alone. At worst, it perpetuates negative cultural habits, reinforces hierarchies, stunts productivity, and severely limits creativity.

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.” They found brainstorming had no appreciable effect on creativity or problem-solving ability. In most cases, brainstorming was worse for thinkers than working alone.

Why does brainstorming fail so spectacularly? There are three key sources of brainstorming’s failures, all of which ring true in group creativity exercises.

Production blocking

In most groups, only one person speaks at a time. As other people wait their turn to contribute, they may forget their ideas or reconsider them when they hear similar ones. As groups got larger, the negative effects of brainstorming becomes more pronounced.

Evaluation apprehension

In group settings, many participants are uncomfortable sharing their ideas for fear of being judged negatively by their peers. Typically, the most senior person in the room is the one who suggests brainstorming with most ideas coming from their end of the org chart. The loudest voice gets heard the most. Introverts are silenced.

Free riding

The more ideas a group comes up with, the less each individual idea matters, and the less incentive any one person have to contribute. As idea quantity increases, ideas seem more and more disposable. Throwing away ideas makes it less likely that anyone will share something they feel strongly about.

Group ideas by definition always devolve to the lowest common denominators. Which is no way to find top ideas.

Ideas are best developed by individuals working by themselves.

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