Sorry to burst your bubble, but brainstorming is not very effective for developing new ideas. Most research on idea generation has shown brainstorming typically does not result in valuable ideas (Schirr, 2012). Most brainstorms are usually just a group of people haphazardly sharing ideas (Jones, 1995). Even with all the research on the flaws of brainstorming, it is still widely used in most organizations (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996).

The majority of research has shown brainstorming is not effective in generating quality ideas, as group brainstorming typically inhibits creative thinking (Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 2010). Research confirms individuals develop a higher quantity of quality ideas individually rather than in a group (Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 2010). Research has also shown brainstorming is less effective than individual ideation.

Advertising legend Alex Osborn developed brainstorming in the late 1930s. The goal was to generate a large number of ideas to create new advertisements. Osborn felt brainstorming would lower individuals’ inhibitions, reduce self-criticism, and eliminate criticism from others, creating an open environment that allows people to ideate freely. Unfortunatley, most people only use the popularized four main rules for effective brainstorming (Osborn, 1963).

  1. Generate as many ideas as possible
  2. Focus on original or unusual ideas
  3. Do not criticize any ideas

Combine and refine the best ideas. Another aspect is people often organize a brainstorm to push their ideas or agendas deceptively through the group exercise (Isaksen & Gaulin, 2005). The main negativity of brainstorms is the cost. The cost of brainstorming regarding time spent and individual dollars per hour can be the same as throwing money in the trash. There are much better ways to develop new, creative ideas.Unfortunately, most brainstorms are a “one and done” without further follow-up and without continued refinement and implementation of ideas. To develop optimal solutions, you need to modify and refine ideas continually. You typically cannot move through the creative process in a single meeting (Cho, 2013). Most people only learn Osborne’s four rules and ignore his other guidelines for effective brainstorming.

When led by an experienced facilitator with a focused topic, brainstorming can provide some value. It can be a fun way to share ideas, stimulate ideation, and motivate individuals to compete against co-workers to develop the best idea (Furnham, 2000). However, brainstorms often go off topic and result in a large number of useless ideas (e.g., low value, low quality).

So why do so many business leaders still rely on brainstorming to develop new ideas or solve problems? Even when a 1958 study conducted by Yale University and Osborn showed that students working alone developed twice as many ideas than groups (Bailis, 2014). An easy answer is “it just feels right.” Intuitively, it makes sense that a group of people sharing ideas should generate high quality, original, and diverse ideas; unfortunately, this is not the case (Kohn & Smith, 2011). Unfortunately, many of us feel that “two heads are better than one” and collaboration allows you to bounce ideas off each other (Bailis, 2014). Also, managers feel brainstorming is a fair way to allow everyone to contribute ideas and leverage buy-in of decisions (de Bono, 1992). Unfortunately, this attempt at consensus building wastes valuable time and resources. It is much better to allow everyone to ideate individually (using proven tools and techniques), then meet as a group to evaluate and refine the best ideas (i.e., convergent thinking).

Most inefficiencies during a brainstorm session are due to individuals dominating the discussion (i.e., the loudest voice wins), redundant ideas, cognitive uniformity where individuals feel pressure to support other ideas, members giving up on the group, and fear of having ideas evaluated or judged (i.e., the fear of looking stupid) (Isaksen & Gaulin, 2005). Early ideas also tend to have a disproportionate influence on the rest of the discussion (Greenfield, 2014). Also, brainstorming results in high levels of productivity loss and impediments to ideation due to waiting to speak, listening to others, or other aspects of group interaction. (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996). Unfortunately, brainstorms often end in a list of ideas with no closure (Furnham, 2000).

The goal of creative thinking is to develop useful ideas to drive new product concepts, adapt current products for new uses, revise internal processes, or solve complex problems. (Stam, de Vet, Barkema, & De Dreu, 2013). Forming a group and telling everyone to brainstorm will not work and is inconsistent with Osborn’s suggestions (Isaksen & Gaulin, 2005). It is best to ideate individually and then meet as a group to analyze and review ideas, then converge on the best choices using proven and effective tools (Stam, de Vet, Barkema, & De Dreu, 2013).