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Why brainstorming doesn’t work

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Problem Solving

Brainstorming is used in virtually every organization to generate ideas and explore options.

But there’s a problem with brainstorming: It doesn’t work.

Six decades of research shows that group brainstorming often fails to produce more or better ideas than people working independently.

In fact, a meta-analytic review—which combined the results of previous research on brainstorming—showed that group brainstorming harms creativity.

How can that be?

Most brainstorming sessions turn into a meeting of the Department of No. People gather around a conference table, half-empty cups of lukewarm coffee strewn around, to explore ideas.

But instead of generating ideas, everyone’s busy shooting them down. “We’ve tried that before.” “We don’t have the budget.” “The management would never approve.” Idea generation stops before it even begins.

Even when ideas are generated, a few individuals dominate the conversation, leaving no room for others to chime in. Those early ideas—which tend to be mediocre—then serve as anchors for the ideas that follow and pull everyone down.

What’s more, no one’s anonymous, so the process gets political. People judge the ideas based on who’s talking, rather than the idea itself. And when people worry about being judged by others—particularly by those higher up the ladder—they tend to self-censor ideas that could ignite a breakthrough.

You don’t have to give up on brainstorming. Here are four things you can do to make your brainstorming sessions more effective:

1. Prepare in advance. Draft an agenda, include prompts to tee up the discussion, and require your team to generate ideas in advance. This gets people thinking about the problem on their own before the session and allows their subconscious to mull things over, connect dots, and make associations.

2. Require anonymous submissions. Ask people to submit ideas anonymously before the session begins. This practice hides the identity of the creator, eliminating politics from the process. It also encourages a greater diversity of ideas since it requires people to create their own ideas before being influenced by others.

3. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation. There’ll be a time to evaluate the ideas you generate, but don’t put the cart before the horse. Generate ideas first before you begin eliminating them.

If you cut the generation process short—if you immediately begin to critique and judge—you’ll undermine creativity.

Encourage team members to combine and build on each other’s ideas with a “Yes and” and “We can if” mindset (as opposed to “No because” or “We can’t because”). Go for quantity—the more ideas, the better.

4. Encourage divergent thinking. During idea generation, don’t worry about what’s possible, what’s doable, and what’s affordable. All ideas—no matter how unreasonable—should be welcome.

Ideas that make a big impact initially seem unreasonable. If they were reasonable, someone else would have thought of them already.

Unreasonable often refers to reasonable not yet made reality. Unreasonable often means untried or unfamiliar. Unreasonable suggests that an idea deviates from your preconceived benchmark of what is reasonable. But, in many cases, it’s not your idea that’s misplaced. It’s your benchmark.

And it’s easier to tone down an unreasonable idea than to create a new one.

A terrible idea is “often the cousin of a good idea, and a great one is the neighbor of that,” as Astro Teller says.

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