Is Brainstorming For Real? You Bet.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 21, 2006

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece deriding brainstorming and suggesting that individuals alone can come up with more and better ideas than a group sitting in a room. It really bothered me to read it because I’ve put some time into studying the art of brainstorming, indeed, the art of having a productive meeting in general, and the WSJ piece was just so wrong on so many levels.


I can’t get into the WSJ site but here are snippits from the IFTF site:

“G]reat brainstorming sessions are possible, but they require the planning of a state dinner, plenty of rules, and the suspension of ego, ingratiation and political railroading. Hosts have to hope that people won’t expend creative energy trying to tell others their ideas are bad without actually telling them that — admittedly a real business skill. And they have to cross their fingers that the session won’t deteriorate into what some people call “blamestorming” or “coblabberation,” where you get nowhere or settle on something mediocre to be done with it….

[I]f you don’t carefully follow procedures, you risk wasting a lot of energy. “If you leave groups to their own devices, they’re going to do a very miserable job,” says Prof. [Paul] B. Paulus, [a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington]….

When the goal really is ideas, some companies resort to hiring facilitators. Outsiders don’t have political dogs in the fight and can, as Bill Hall learned, make people “get back in line.” The last time Mr. Hall tried to conduct a session himself on how to save his organization money, “it quickly degenerated into a worthless day,” he says.

Prof. Paulus conducted research on the number and quality of ideas of four people brainstorming together versus four people brainstorming by themselves. Typically, group brainstormers perform at about half the level they would if they brainstormed alone…. [I]f people brainstorm alone after the group brainstorming session, it can [also] be productive, he says, adding, “It’s ironic: You tap the benefits of groups alone. Everyone still presumes the best brainstorming is group brainstorming.”

David Perkins, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, warns that sometimes group sessions can result in one person’s bad idea tainting and limiting the range of others’ ideas. “The best way to get good ideas is to get people to write them down privately and then bring them in,” he says.

That’s it from the WSJ piece. My own experience is that if you craft the meeting, mix the people correctly, set rules on not interrupting and “yes, butting,” and keep the focus, brainstorming sessions can be incredibly productive.

But I’ll leave it to Bob Sutton, who is a professor of management science and engineering at the Engineering School at Stanford to critique the WSJ. He’s just started a new blog and it’s good.

Reader Comments

RitaSue Siegel

June 22, 2006 2:24 AM

I was incensed by the article when I saw it and wrote a letter to the writer. The people quoted sounded so mean spirited.There is no one way to do anything, but a small group who respect the opinions and feelings of others, who agree on what to focus on, and like bouncing things off one another can certainly find group (small group) brainstorming successful whether or not people come in with ideas all written down or not. I wouldn't want to work in the organizations that fostered the opinions in the article because the people plainly don't like or trust each other.

Some quotes: "We sit there looking embarrassed like we're all new to a nudist colony," says Joe Polidoro."These things are usually designed to give people the idea that they have input into decisions when the decisions have already been decided." "If you leave groups to their own devices, they're going to do a very miserable job," says Prof. Paulus. Paul Baard, a professor of organizational psychology at Fordham University's School of Business, suggests starting off like this: "No one, present or not here, is going to be hurt during this process. We will not be using ridicule ... ."

I cannot imagine working with people who cannot experience the fun, excitement and intellectual stimulaton that comes with doing brainstorming with other smart people who want to be in the room.

Marc Vlemmings

June 23, 2006 12:22 PM

There is more scientific evidence that brainstorming in a group isn't that effective. Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam found out that generating ideas solo is more fruitful than in a group. Read about this on the website of the British Psychological Society http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2006/02/why-do-we-still-believe-in-group.html

BTW: You can read the Wall Street Journal article about brainstorming for free at http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06164/697891-28.stm

Marc Vlemmings

RitaSue Siegel

July 1, 2006 11:57 AM

Check out brainstorming in 3 July BW issue. Cover story subject Nathan Myhrvold does it as part of his Intellectual Ventures company invention process--70 day long sessions in 3 years, pages 54-56. At Samsung, it takes place day after day at the Value Innovation Program Center, page 46. I concede that it is not for everyone, but it is another great tool in the arsenal.

Daniel Schutzsmith

July 8, 2006 2:49 AM

Thank you for sharing that information Rita Sue! I just read the issue and was really impressed by the Samsung VIP Center - the sheer volume of ideas that must be coming out of there is ginormous.

Prof. David A. Rivkin, PhD

September 24, 2006 8:31 PM

I think some people are missing the point of the research. The issue is not that people should be avoiding communications and sharing of ideas...that has been going on for millenium...but rather that the format of a meeting room for hours of discussion is not truely productive. Today we have tools like this Blog and Wiki (a better choice) not to mention good old email and listserv, to assist in group communications on ideas, documents etc. This allows the best of the individual contribution and the multiple minds working together.
I often find that organizational psychology researchers and writers forget that we are looking at scientists and engineers in this case, and that such people are not social people by nature, in general, often having social phobias and autistic traits, for example Bill Gates with Asperger's Disorder. These people do not like to sit in a room and discuss matters with more powerful personallities and hence do not contribute. Also, in todays multicultural and global workplace, those from many Asian cultures have the cultural belief that one does not put forth ideas to ones boss but only is there to listen and do as told. Again, lost contribution and value to the effort. It is often the case that these two groups have the most to contribute in talent but the social issues prevent such contribution. It has been well documented, that in these two cases, projects often go astray, lead down incorrect paths by the lack of contribution by these members. What my research is finding is that only tools such as Wikis help bring out that ability to contribute by such members of the staff. In addition, staff do not need to work the same hours or even be in the same location. Isnt it time to give up on the Industrial Revolution view of organizational leadership and management and see that we have been in the Communications Age for a long time? Lets use the incredible technologies available to us to change how work is done and managed.

Thank you,
Prof. David A. Rivkin, PhD
Professor of Engineering Management, Drexel University
CTO, SciEssence Intl.

Jay Hamilton-Roth

August 8, 2007 3:19 PM

The hidden value to brainstorming is team-building.

Having everyone face-to-face has the positive of causing everyone to focus at the same time, but has the negatives of being dominated by the most vocal and proceeding at a pace that might not work for everyone in the room (slow and fast thinkers alike).

There are many different techniques for creative problem solving. Picking the right one for the problem and team is the skill of a great facilitator.

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About

Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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