If I Only Had a Brain(storm): A Look at Brainstorming in the Workplace

By on July 12, 2018

Part I

Many organizations use brainstorming when they are stuck or looking to access new and unorthodox ideas. Some organizations even have official brainstorm meetings, complete with a moderator, whiteboards, snacks and rules like:

· No idea is a bad idea
· No judging of ideas
· Crazy ideas are encouraged
· The more ideas the better

One Small Problem

After nearly 70 years, what have we learned about brainstorms in the workplace? Perhaps you’ve been in a recent brainstorm, maybe one where a colleague suggests the recruiters dress up like panda bears at the next career event, and a question pops into your head:

Does Brainstorming Even Work?

Great question, and there’s been a lot of organizational research recently around brainstorming. The answer? I’ll let the experts tell you:

“Group brainstorming is where creativity goes to die.”
Adam Grant, Wharton professor, organizational psychologist

“Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups.”
Adrian Furnham, organizational psychologist

“After six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently.”
Harvard Business Review

Convinced that your organization’s brainstorming sessions are a model of efficiency, great ideas and teamwork? That’s not surprising, as research shows that people who are part of a brainstorm almost always feel like their group performed far better than they actually did.

Why doesn’t brainstorming work?

While there are many reasons why brainstorming sessions fail, here are four major causes:

  • You’re kind of lazy
    Also known as social loafing or free riding. We often make less of an effort when we are working in teams — especially large teams. It’s like when you go into a meeting with 12 other people and think, “Oh, these other guys have got this.”
  • You’re more than a little scared
    Whether you’re new to an organization or a tenured employee, some level of social anxiety always exists. We care what people think about our ideas. This is also referred to as evaluation apprehension. And just because you tell people at the beginning of a brainstorming session that they are in a safe place, that there are no bad ideas and that no one will judge them — people will, of course, be judged, and they know that.
  • Your brainstorm team is well, mediocre
    Also known as regression to the mean, this is the tendency for things to average out: the process where people end up matching the effort and performance of the rest of the brainstorm team — which is usually poor. Think about playing tennis with someone who is just awful — me, perhaps — you’ll certainly win, but your performance will likely decline.
  • The “no bad ideas” rule is a bad idea
    This idea of putting any level of judgment or critique aside sounds comforting but rarely results in good ideas. In fact, Adam Grant’s research shows that people are actually more creative in groups where criticism is welcome. Of course, this doesn’t mean people should slam or denounce ideas they don’t like, but your group needs to have standards.

All is NOT lost

The good news is that by following a few rules and making some adjustments to your standard brainstorming meeting, you can begin to have more effective sessions and produce a higher level of ideas. Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog where I’ll share some tips for other methods of collaboration.

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