Select Page

People, We Have a Problem

The term “brainstorming” has become generic and is being applied to almost any form of individual or group creative thinking.  But there is still a lot of Classic brainstorming in the workplace, and that is the focus of my rant.

The concept of brainstorming makes sense at first. You have a problem in your business and nobody seems to have a clue how to solve it. So, you get a group of people together and create a nonjudgmental atmosphere of trust and teamwork – then let the creative ideas flow like water. Problem solved.  Right?  Wrong!

I have personally been involved in many of these affairs and found them to be painful and unproductive. I had suspicions about the brainstorming methodology, but never went on record with a complaint. That would have been career suicide. Were my experiences a problem with the concept, the participants or the facilitator? The participants were all SME (Subject Matter Experts). The facilitators were experienced, often outside consultants. So what’s the issue?

Brainstorming Origins

Susan Cain first clued me into the origins in her brilliant book Quiet. In a nutshell, Brainstorming does not work. Let’s back up to the beginning. Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, popularized the term in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination.

The Rules

  1. Do not judge the ideas of others
  2. Generate as many ideas as possible
  3. Encourage the “crazy” ideas
  4. Build upon the best ideas

Where’s the Proof

I would like to give Osborn the benefit of doubt. Perhaps his brainstorming methods were effective in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But as early as the 1960’s, we should have known better. Cain notes that in his 1963 study, industrial psychologist Marvin Dunnette compared solitary vs group brainstorming. Ideas were ranked by both quantity and quality. Solitary brainstorming produced higher quantity and quality. Additional research by others has confirmed these conclusions.

Why the Fail

  • For some people, the group environment isn’t necessarily the best format to generate ideas.
  • The group environment inhibits some people from offering their ideas due to their quiet nature, in spite of the best efforts of a facilitator.
  • The large pool of ideas are eventually culled down to a smaller number (the best ideas). The culling down process requires some level of consensus, which raises another set of issues related to the social psychology of “conformity”. Cain discusses Solomon Asch’s studies on this topic, and you can find video’s of his experiments on youtube.  People are denying facts, just to confirm.

Real Life Examples

I have witnessed and actively participated in all of these modes of dysfunction. The most memorable was a session where one individual was dominating the ideas and discussion. There wasn’t a reason for the other to even be present. To the credit of the facilitator, he recognized the problem. During a break, he told the dominant individual that when we reconvened, they must not speak so that others would have a chance to contribute. The mandate was followed.  But it wasn’t long before the individual started writing notes and handed them to a subordinate to read out-loud. I could only imagine what their working relationship must have been like.

In a slightly more functional session, I attended a brainstorming event that brought together people from all branches across the US. We were divided up into teams of seven and we filled a large ballroom of a hotel for 3 days, meeting day and night. Each team was challenged to “brainstorm” ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs.  For reasons unclear to me, I was elected spokesperson for our group. This meant it was my job to present our ideas to the larger audience. As the day progressed, I became increasingly nervous at this prospect – due to the quality of our ideas and my ability to convey those ideas without looking like an idiot. (The reason I was elected spokesperson was becoming clear.)  We would reconvene for presentations after a dinner break. I decided a couple of Bloody Mary’s during dinner was the solution to my nerves. Maybe a third for good measure. The presentations started and eventually I was handed a microphone to address a ballroom of eager onlookers. As recall, my 5 minute presentation was brilliant.  But, I must admit, the memory is somewhat hazy.  I don’t believe any of the brilliant ideas from our team were ever implemented.

Applying the Brakes

Some of you are probably saying “Hold on, I’ve been in brainstorming teams that created great innovations!”. I have no doubt this is true, or at least appears to be true.  The results of many sessions are typically summarized in the fashion of One-Hundred and Fifty New Ideas with a potential Cost Reduction of $10,000,000. Everyone feels good about the results, but how often are the numbers validated a year later.  I’m not suggesting brainstorming never works, or that some of the newer brainstorming methods aren’t effective. Organizations need structured methods to kick-start innovation. So new methods continue to be introduced, books are published and consultants continue to be hired to facilitate. Sometimes this produces real results.  There probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Every organization is different. What works in one may fail in another. In a future post I’ll discuss the newest methods for groups and individuals.

Next week, How Deeply Held Beliefs May Dumb Us Down.

Subscribe to the Newsletter to receive a notice when the Post goes live.

Photo by Crispin Blackall;  License CC2.0