No More Brainstorming

So, here’s a silly idea. Let’s do some brainstorming!

We’re going to all get into a room (remember those?), and then I’m going to give you all a problem to solve. You think about it for a minute, and then we’re all going to yell out solutions, which we’ll write down on sticky notes and put on a white board. Don’t be shy, there’s no such thing as a stupid idea! Well, except for the stuff that John usually comes up with. Just kidding, John. Or am I? Yes I am. Or not? Haha! Let’s go!

Alright, time’s up people. This is how we’re going do this, if you have something to say, please raise your hand firs…

“I think we should do A!” Fred yells.

“Well, that’s rather stupid” says John.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid idea, John. Please keep your judgment to yourself. At least for now. And I said to raise your hand before speaking, all!”

“Ok, any other ideas, people?”


From the Harvard Business Review:

Osborn famously claimed that brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50% versus individuals working on their own. Yet after six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.
A meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams, when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written. Another problem is that teams tend to give up when they notice that their efforts aren’t producing very much.

I suspect brainstorming is one of those cargo cult things. Everybody does it. It’s known to be a good practice. Also it’s a cool word to say. So, let’s do it!

And then we sit in that room, are being dominated by the few extraverts in the room, and keep our ideas to ourselves. Or since our speaking time is limited, only mention the one thing that is most in line with what others have already been saying.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of intuitive sense that this isn’t a great system. If intuition isn’t sufficient for you, HBR lists four more scientific reasons (science!):

  • Social loafing: “This is a large group, I bet others will have plenty ideas already, no reason for me to really do the work here.” Very similar to the bystander effect.
  • Social anxiety: “Other people in this room know much more than me, my ideas are probably silly and people will laugh at them.”
  • Regression to the mean: like in sports, practicing with somebody less competent than you lowers your competence to their level.
  • Production blocking: there’s a negative correlation between the group size and number of ideas produced per person, for obvious reason: you can only express one idea at a time, and with a larger group that time is more limited.

No more brainstorming.

What instead? I wish you hadn’t asked. I have no personal experience with this, but an idea that sounds reasonable to me is Shifting:

To conduct Shifting do the following:

  1. Instruct your group to work on the problem alone for 5-10 minutes or until you see the pens start to slow.
  2. Bring the group together and get people to share their ideas one-by-one around the table and build on each other’s ideas. This should take between 20 and 40 minutes.
  3. Next, shift back into individual mode and get people to build on the shared ideas alone for 5 to 10 minutes or until you see the pens start to slow again.
  4. And lastly, bring the group back together and repeat Step 2.

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