The Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It?

Two recent articles argue that brainstorming doesn’t make people more creative. So how might we remake the brainstorming process, given what science tells us?

The business practice of brainstorming has been around with us so long that it seems like unadorned common sense: If you want a rash of new ideas, you get a group of people in a room, have them shout things out, and make sure not to criticize, because that sort of self-censoring is sure to kill the flow of new thoughts.

It wasn’t always so: This entire process was invented by Alex Osborn, one of the founders of BBDO, in the 1940's. It was motivated by Osborn’s own theory of creativity. He thought, quite reasonably, that creativity was both brittle and fickle: In the presence of criticism, it simply couldn’t wring itself free from our own minds. We could only call our muses if judgments didn’t drag us down. Osborn claimed that this very brainstorming process was the secret to BBDO’s durable creativity, allowing his ad guys to produce as many as 87 ideas in 90 minutes—a veritable avalanche. "The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines," writes Jonah Lehrer in a long, excellent article in The New Yorker. But as Lehrer argues, the only problem with all this is that brainstorming is total bullshit.

You’re More Creative Working Alone

As an opening salvo, Lehrer lays out a devastating experiment, conducted in the 1950s, which found that when test subjects tried to solve a complex puzzle, they actually came up with twice as many ideas working alone as they did when working in a group. Numerous studies have since verified that finding: Putting people into big groups doesn’t actually increase the flow of ideas. Group dynamics themselves—rather than overt criticism—work to stifle each person’s potential.

Lehrer doesn’t quite explain why that happens. But in a nice coincidence, Susan Cain tackles that very problem in her upcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. As she explains in The New York Times, groups don’t encourage creativity because of the social pressure they bring to bear:

People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this "the pain of independence."

Criticism Improves the Brainstorming Process

Those findings all probably make sense to anyone who has sat in a brainstorming session and wondered why Debbie from accounting suddenly became the world’s most vocal expert on car design. (Here, I’m referencing a real-life experience I got sitting in on a brainstorming session for a major car company.) But Lehrer goes on to point out that other studies have shown that the presence of criticism actually increases the flow of ideas. One experiment compared two groups: One which brainstormed with a mandate not to criticize, and another which had the license to debate each others ideas. The second group had 20% more ideas—and even after the session ended, the people in the second group had far more additional ideas than those in the first.

Why is that? Lehrer doesn’t really say, and neither do his sources. But this idea makes sense. The problem with traditional brainstorming is the assumption that good ideas can spring up unbidden. In real life, the process is more interesting than that. Usually, inventions often begin when an inventor spots a problem. Good ideas usually don’t hang by themselves, unattached. They come about as solutions. Thus, allowing criticism into a room full of people trying to brainstorm allows them to refine and redefine a problem. Adding more and more complex problems to the mix doesn’t stifle creativity—it actually gives the mind more to work with, simply by demanding that we find better and better answers.

Creativity Is About Happenstance, Not Planning

Lehrer then goes searching for better models of the creative process, and finds a couple. One comes in the form of a professor who was able to study how the relationships within a group affect the quality of their work. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, found that on Broadway the worst-performing productions were the work of two groups: Those that had worked together too much, and those that had worked together too little. Too much familiarity bred groupthink. Too little meant that they didn’t have enough chemistry to challenge each other. The most productive groups were those with a baseline of familiarity but just enough fresh blood to make things interesting.

But there’s a serendipity involved that you can’t fake: Studies have shown that the most successful groups of scientists also work in extremely close physical proximity. Just being around another creative person is vital to the process, because so many ideas happen as a result of water-cooler chatter and passing contact. The best support comes by anecdote: Building 20, a famous hothouse of ideas on the MIT campus. It worked because its design was so crappy and haphazard. It was nothing more than a sheetrock box, but in its maze of corridors and cramped offices, scientists of all stripes often found themselves happening upon conversations with others from wildly different fields. It’s no accident that so many breakthroughs came from that building, including radar, microwaves, the first video games, and Chomskyan linguistics.

Increasingly, companies such as Vitra are designing workspaces designed to blend intense solitude, shown above, and relaxed, freewheeling sociability.

Can We Rework the Brainstorming Paradigm?

I laid out all of these details from Lehrer’s article because each of these findings suggest that the brainstorming process might not be totally hopeless after all. We know that breakthrough insight likely requires intense, individual reflection. We also know that criticism unlocks creativity. And finally, we know that creativity can be fostered by a certain type of physical space.

Each of these findings, taken together, is cause for optimism. For one, the brainstorming might work better if it focused not on finding solutions, but rather identifying problems. What if, during a brainstorming session, people weren’t asked to simply throw out ideas, but rather problems as well? Granted, you’ve still got the annoying problem of groupthink. But the fact is that people are usually better at finding fault than they are at finding answers. Properly harnessed, that could be a good thing. Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to invent a new computer UI. It’s much more productive to find what drives people nuts and the features that keep them from doing what they want to do than it is to find out what sort of computer they’d like to have in some idealized fantasy world. Solving such a complex problem as UI design demands a certain subtlety and depth of thought. But those solutions only begin flowing when the problem becomes interesting enough to demand new ideas. My point is that by reframing what we expect to gain from some technique such as brainstorming, we might make it far more useful.

Finally, the fact that office design can so dramatically affect the work we produce means that designers have the wherewithal to affect a company’s core mission. Designers really can make a company smarter, if they embrace the chaotic reality of creativity, rather than trying to create spaces where every last function and possibility has its place. In other words, there might be room for a new design paradigm that embraces both limitations and flexibility. You can create offices where accidental encounters are encouraged. And you can create offices where nothing is ever fixed. The smartest office isn’t perfect, and it isn’t permanent.

Don’t miss Lehrer’s long, rich account of the research behind brainstorming.

Top image by Matthew Jacques via Shutterstock; image of thumbs by Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.

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  • Linda

    Your last paragraph about office design supporting producitivity and creativity caught my interest. Studies do support that proximity supports creative collaboration. And Lehrer states:  "Stewart Brand, in his study “How Buildings
    Learn,” cites Building 20 as an example of a “Low Road” structure, a type of
    space that is unusually creative because it is so unwanted and underdesigned. "
    The "underdesigned" part is what allowed everyone to open-up and reconfigure the space to meet the needs of their project and their needs.

    At the genesis of the cubicle office the idea was that they could be re-arranged and re-structured to meet changing needs. But the reality is that once they were installed, they were never moved and rarely changed.

    Today design firms are creating office that are functionally upside-down. Most people have desks in open spaces with visual and auditory distractions. They both work and socialize in these open spaces. When someone needs to do focused concentrated work they retreat to the empty socail lounges for the quiet they need for coding or problem-solving.

  • Sally Stegeman Faust

    Despite the disconnect I have between the hyperbolic title and the content (are you really arguing that brainstorming is BS?), one great point this article makes is that a group isn't necessarily key to generating good ideas, but that collaborative work is key to making good ideas great.

  • Pete

    Oddly, no one has talked about people.  Whether any problem solving or idea generating technique works depends a lot on the people involved.  And it also depends a lot on the problem involved.  

    BBDO had a bunch of very outgoing people, all peers, who knew each other a bit, (but not too much, as there were always people coming and going) and were used to voicing their opinions.  They were looking for ideas for advertising campaigns a very specific kind of work.  Brainstorming worked for them.  It fit the people, and the problems. 
    But it is all about getting the right people, with the right information in the room.  The reason the lady from accounting got so much into car design, is she probably had ideas about the bad designs in the cars she drove.  She probably asked why the cup holder was in a certain place, or why the window controls or cranks or what have you were in a certain place, and used in a certain way.  I doubt she had much to say about fuel formulation, in engine cylinder strength design scenarios.  

    Solving a puzzle can be a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup, if the cooks are all adding things at once.  Mind you, some people in the "individuals group" probably came up with FEWER ideas alone, also.  Some came up with MORE ideas.  Maybe it was the specific puzzle under consideration, or their personality.  Maybe those who might otherwise not speak in a group, did better alone, writing ideas down on a form.  It was a test for them.  And they wanted to pass that test.  So they wrote down more ideas.  The thing not noted was whether any of the ideas in either case worked, and which group had the better ideas.  And finding out who has a better idea, is a devilishly hard thing to do.   Take cars.  Chrysler has interesting designs, whereas, Nissan, say, has better quality.  GM used to have more models of cars -- too many in fact.  They were competing against themselves!    

    Brainstorming still has many uses.  If you have the right people in the room, in the right environment.  And if you are using it on the right problem.  If the problem is an accounting problem, putting the guys from marketing to work on it, may well not help.  If you have too chaotic or conflict filled an environment, you can prevent ideas from being brought forth.  The "quiet or shy ones" will not contribute.  If you have too chummy an environment, the same thing will happen:  Everybody thinks the same:  "Everybody goes with good old Bill's idea..."   

    And having many ideas is not necessarily a good thing.  You might be in a position where you have too many ideas being generated too soon, that they cannot be analysed, discussed, debated, or organized efficiently.  Thus, many good ideas will be lost, merely because they were not explored sufficiently....  "We never looked at Tom's idea!  We just took good old Bill's!"   

    The idea of a meeting, or a bull pit session, or a brainstorming session, whether you are all in the same room, or are collecting ideas people put forth while they were alone, or are crowd-sourcing.... is to come up with either a "definition of just what the problem is" or a solution to a "pre-stated problem".... or BOTH.  And hopefully you come up with just the right definition of the problem.  And a workable solution.  "We're loosing money!"  That is a problem.  Who?  What? Why?  How? Where? When? and all their little friends all come into play. 

    The big 3 were loosing money, and not selling cars.  They never seemed to figure out why, and what to do about it.   It was a big complex problem, in some ways.  It was also pretty simple in other ways!  

    But defining a problem, and defining a solution, is like defining an answer to a question.  That is only 1/2 the battle.  You then have to implement and carry out your solution.  And that is the other 1/2 of the battle.  Then too, let us hope you have exactly the correct resources....

    A quick and dirty example:  Study the movie Apollo 13.  See how they solved the problem about the air recyclers and filters.  Which really, never should have come up.  Actually, somebody should write a factual book about that.  The movie was good, but there is lots of learning we could get in grasping just why one device was a certain size and shape, and the other was not, yet they both did the same work.  And we could learn a lot be being able to know exactly how they came up with a solution, and why it worked....  

    Theory is nice.  It often works.  Real life is dirty.  It often throws (or blows) theory away.  There is a big difference between "The Theory of Gravity", and the "Theory of Why Johnny Can't Learn to Read".  The "Theory of Evolution" is one thing, the Theory of Why they are not Buying our Widgets"... is another. 

    I hope I added a couple of ideas to be chewed over.  I probably raised more questions than I provided answers.  Sorry about that.   Maybe wiser minds or more experienced ones will take the questions, and provide a few answers....   And thus, in that little deed alone, I will have been of service.  I will have encouraged collaboration.  Maybe creativity.  Maybe something else. 

  • Elton Lim

    err.. actually.. what exactly is your point?
    Are you for or against brainstorming?  My sincere apologies, but I can't seem to grasp anything of value from this article.

    Brainstorming in essence is a numbers game of throwing out ideas, whether you do it individually or in a group setting, so that there is a higher probablity of finding an answer to a question/problem.  Then, the question of the quality of the brainstorming effort is therefore a matter of the "brains" of the participant(s), the skill of the facilitator, the methodology/technique employed, and perhaps a stroke of genius or a little bit of luck.  Often, the post brainstorming follow-up actions determine the final outcome of whether the brainstorming effort has been useful or not.

  • Roger Richardson

    Brainstorming only works when the group is willing to discuss and play with bad ideas. All too often in a group you think too much before talking and diamonds in the rough never come on to the playing field.
    Ideas seem to be developed best independently but need polished before they come out into daylight.

  • Admin

    Great post. We like to think there is a process so that it seems measured. But I personally feel it's more emotional.

  • Stefan Ilkovics

    We can't get comfortable in the box if we want to think outside of it. 
    Creativity is a muscle. As anybody who has ever worked out knows, you can't stick to the same routine of exercises to build  muscle. No matter  how good the routine may be,  the muscle  adapts and stops progressing.
    Certain creative exercises work better with certain people and projects, but above all to keep the mind agile we need to keep it on it's toes.  At Blondie,  our Agency, last brainstorm we filled the room up with balloons  just to create something unexpected,  we're thinking  of inviting guest brainstormers  just  to break the "comfort zone " of  being amongst ourselves,..

    It's a never ending quest with no holy grail.

  • Anne Tryba

    This astute observation is worth the price of admission alone:

    "We know that breakthrough insight likely requires intense, individual
    reflection. We also know that criticism unlocks creativity. And finally,
    we know that creativity can be fostered by a certain type of physical

    It's also clear to me that the "no hierarchy" model of brainstorming sessions sited in other articles refuses to acknowledge the bottom line--someone has to decide which solution is the "best" or most practical. That job may be delegated to different "deciders", but ultimately there IS someone on the top of the pyramid calling the shots. There may be an illusion of equality when attempting to harvest a lot of ideas, but once the session is over...that equality of rank during the creative thinking process is trumped by the need to get busy on the real work of implementation.

  • K Goodrich

    Superb thinking! I have often felt frustrated in those brainstorming sessions. So much of it is inert. So little of it is truly unrestrained by the 'no crit' rule - group dynamics always carry the potential for criticism or fear of it, so the effect is to make some people propose the outlandish and others to sit back and wait to pounce at the very end with a redirection that makes the exercise to that point a waste of time. 

    I love your idea of starting with a problem, whatever problem, and let the ideas flow from there. For instance, microwaves: "Food takes too long to cook when I get home after a long commute!" 

    Personal experience, however, shows that if one person has an idea, it gives others something to react to and that is what can be remarkably productive. You may need one venturesome person willing to take the risk, but once you do, you can see the brains analyzing and the eyes lighting up with builds on the idea. It seems to work best in small groups, however. Perhaps the words that should be ruled out are "We did that before and it didn't work." Or is that the place to start?

  • Scott B

    Brainstorming is a great tool and I use it often by myself. I don't think you need to read an article to understand that when you do it in a group you're going to have less ideas. Just for the simple fact individuals will self edit before it ever goes out to the group in an attempt not to sound stupid. It's just how people are. 

    This article and the one being sourced already had an answer before it was ever created and it's just PR to get people to buy this Jonah Lehere's book coming out in March and then ultimately for people to pay for this guys speaking engagements. 
    This stuff was figured out by Irving Janis a research psychologist in his book Victims of Groupthink (1972). Working in groups is bad for idea generation and is only good to come to a consensus which does not generate new ideas. But I guess we need another book on the exact same topic to get a contemporary writer from another Ivy League school some money in their pocket. Hell both those writers are from the exact same school. This is dumb as hell. This guy won't get a dime of my money for his "new" information.

  • Gab

    Thanks Scott for pointing this out... I was wondering exactly how this 30y/o well groomed guy could have possibly come up with something new on such an old and investigated topic. Well, I should have known he hasn't.
    I believe this a recent terrible trend encouraged by the Internet, and it is true of Lehrer as well as of an entire wave of young, enterprising, yuppie speakers.
    I have nothing against 'popular science' but I resent that many of these authors seldom acknowledge their sources and try to pass themselves as innovators and clever thinkers...


  • Sara Jane Falcon

    Brainstorming isn't effective... on its own.  Related to PRODUCT DESIGN, I have found the following to be helpful when kick-starting creative thought:

    1. Give team members a heads up on what you are going to be discussing days ahead, so they can observe the problem as they go about their daily routines or do a bit of research to ground themselves before the meeting.  I have found specifically with product design, we tend to have an idea about how we or others interact with a product.  Unfortunately sometimes this is incorrect.  Let's stop wasting time discussing the wrong problem by having people understand the real one.  And let's stop assuming people can brainstorm "cold".  All my best ideas and realizations happen when I first wake up, not whenever you schedule for me to be in a meeting.

    2.  Have the meeting to DISCUSS the problem.  There should be someone whose job it is to be the facilitator; a referee.  This person should be able to keep conversation moving and be able to cut off the strong personalities in the group if they start taking over.  I don't care how great your team is, you need this person.

    The opportunity should be presented to the group in a coherent and story-like way, providing clear background on the project and clear ideas for next steps.  If you schedule a brainstorming session, please have enough respect for your team that you have formulated a clear problem statement.  Don't waste my time with an unorganized pile of facts, data and descriptions.  Don't just stick to powerpoint.  Bring visuals.  Bring props.  Bring samples.

    Instead of shouting out ideas, let's just discuss the problem.  However, a lot of people are going to want to jump to solutions as well.  You can let them, but let them do that in a way that doesn't interrupt good conversation.  Give people paper or post its to write on, and designate an area of the room for ideas.  When you review these at the end of the session, look for the larger themes within the sketches/ideas to discuss with the group.  Discussing a theme with the group provides a greater discussion in a shorter amount of time than just criticizing one sketch/idea at a time. 

    3.  Leave the meeting.  Thinking time is alone time.  Give people time to get into the right mental space to think about the problem.  Let them do their own research.  But give them expectations for regrouping (timing, number of ideas or number of time you expect someone to focus on the problem).

    4.  Reconvene at a later date.  And when you do, make them sell you (and the group) their ideas.  I want to know what problems it solves and why you believe in it.  
    Let everybody go through their concepts and THEN start to hash out what you believe works, what doesn't, and why.  Again, there will be themes among some of the ideas, discussing these instead of focusing on each individual idea helps broaden the discussion and is respectful of time.

    5.  Refine in small groups.  At the end of a brainstorming process I always end up with a huge stack of ideas.  Sort these into categories for discussion. These can be effectively attacked by small teams.  This is where you can really hash stuff out.  Sometimes concepts are refined from these group sessions, other times new ideas are formulated with the original work as inspiration.  Either way, critical discussions are key to developing good concepts.

  • Dave Nixon

    Great article Cliff.  I agree with theses ideas but brainstorming CAN be successful with some of these suggestions to the process and some structure.

    Hard to argue with IDEO on their brainstorming methods:

    This is not a structured session but certainly a structured PROCESS behind it. And the results speak for themselves. The key is different perspectives and smaller teams competing, rather than one group trying to agree on one solution, which is where the real egos and politics come into play (I agree with DAR here).

    In this process, there is time to address issues together, gather some initial ideas and then go off in solitude to solve the problem away from the population, then come back with rough ideas needing refinement. Outside user feedback further refines the solution from there. It helps not having a time limitation of a brainstorming session to continue to formulate ideas. Let them "bake." Then the ideas are presented and chosen by voting on them at a later date and time. There is a quotient of challenge, competition and investment involved. It seems that IDEO has removed the egos to a certain degree. Everyone is on equal footing.

    Keys to a successful brainstorming process:
    Smaller groups
    Different perspectives
    Remove the ego/political component that derails most brainstorm sessions
    You take the responsibility for your solution, good or bad
    Time to understand the issue then go off into smaller more focused groups to solve issues (This is where the REAL brain work begins)
    Challenge the solutions as a broader group
    Outside feedback and criticism is welcomed (phrase your feedback as a question, not a statement)

  • JEFF

       Finally somebody called as they saw it.  I have worked in agency life for decades and I always came up with a good idea on my own,  then mess with the group.

  • FreeFrog

    Good stuff. I still consider small group or individual "brainstorming" very productive, but only if it's to take on a very finite task/problem and that at the end of the "free thinking" process we argue and debate what is/isn't a good idea. It quickly solves problems of too much back-n-forth later. However, this whole "feel good" approach to brainstorming is less effective for larger groups IMHO, because there are always a few people who dominate and others who sit quietly — either because they're intimidated by the process, or their creative flow doesn't come off the cuff in a large group setting. I do think brainstorming helps generate more random ideas and has merit, but it's hardly the holy grail to a good idea.

  • DaR

    The part that drives me crazy about the so-called "brainstorming" process is when half the team is sitting there waiting for the agency principal to voice his opinion, then they fall like dominos into line behind whatever he said. The ones who try to voice other opinions or raise other ideas get ignored into submission. The best brainstorms I've experienced are smaller groups or ones where the people who sign the paychecks manage to listen up for a while, and express their opinions after there has been much interaction first.

    Also, I've found that creative types can take all the input of a brainstorm and use it to generate great ideas once they go off and work alone after the meeting.

  • Wlthrpr

    God bless you! Seriously, folks-God bless. Now that the crust has been broken on brainstorming, smash the mantel on leadership, ethics, and quality training. Don't stop there-billions of dollars are wasted on structured meetings on ephemeral topics that are political, supposedly motivating, or unsolvable-at least within the structure of companies that only desire the continuation of their present profits and product lines. I nearly cry when I see the "leader" or organizer of meetings listen to the concerns of their subordinates while secretly stroking their ego-such antics cannot be done in front of military commanders but it happens everywhere. Put the blueprint on the wall and listen to the little guy who has done it for 40 years then the new guy then anyone else who can read a blueprint. That's more than my two cents but I'm tired of people showing up that can't read prints.

  • Anne

     AMEN. Good for you. I have long suspected that most of the pontificating business-speak is only there to sell books and high priced "success" workshops to people who aren't quite sure of themselves (aren't we all?). Although I am puzzled by your comment about military leaders.  I don't know about that, but would expect that similar motivations are present in the military structure as in business.

  • Spoonfeederxxx

    Firstly, this is not an either or scenario, but merely a preference on how some people like to work...

    I've been in a creative field for the past 12 years and brainstorming works, because the problems that are created are addressed immediately.

    This is made easier when you work with like-minded people who understand to parameters of the problem.

    And secondly, it is common knowledge that the most inhibited people when it comes to creativity are children...


    That's because children live in a constant state of creative daydream, the Alpha wave of the brain.

    Some kids grow up and lose it, while others understand it and harness it.

    The danger is assuming that everyone is creative...

    Unfortunately, that isn't true...

    However, everyone can solve problems...

    What separates creative people from problem solvers is that creative people have a natural instinct of people and how they will respond to the solution without the need for proof, where problem solvers don't...

    Look at accountants if you don't believe me...