Many of us have been forced to sit through a brainstorming session at some point in our professional careers. Stuck in an airless meeting room, the minutes tick by slowly and people’s eyes begin to droop. The coffee runs dry and so do the good ideas. Before you know it, two hours have passed and you wonder what the point of the meeting was – and panic about the work you now have to catch up on.
The concept of brainstorming was first introduced by the advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1940s, who wanted his employees to think of more creative ad campaigns. It is based on the idea that a problem can be solved by gathering a list of spontaneous ideas from a group of people, by removing inhibitions.
Essentially, brainstorming is based on several rules. You are supposed to think of as many ideas as possible, prioritise unique ideas, refine the ideas suggested and avoid criticism. It should be as informal as possible and is based on the theory that all ideas hold weight - and that a large quantity of ideas will eventually lead to an answer.
To this day, many companies still use brainstorming sessions to problem-solve, generate ideas or boost creativity. But does it really work?
Research suggests brainstorming might not be as effective as we think it is. According to a meta-analytic review of more than 800 teams, people are more likely to come up with a higher number of original ideas when they aren’t interacting with other people.
The research, carried out by Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson & Eduardo Salas, found that a number of social effects place limitations on creativity. For example, the fear of being judged for an unusual suggestion.
Earlier this year, a survey of 20,000 creatives from 192 countries by the file-sharing firm WeTransfer found that a majority find brainstorming largely unhelpful.
“In the creative world we hear an awful lot about collaboration, but it seems that while working together is essential to bring an idea to life, it’s not that good for shaping ideas in the first place. 78% of creatives said they decide on their own whether an idea is any good or not,” said Rob Alderson, the company’s former editor-in-chief.
“When it comes to pursuing a new idea, it seems sharing isn’t always caring,” the report states. “The creative process is often perceived as collaborative, yet only 18% of creatives will consult their ideas with friends, family or colleagues.”
There are various reasons why brainstorming doesn’t always work. First, despite innovation and creativity being commonly seen as a collaborative process, this isn’t necessarily true.
Even when working together, we are still restrained by social anxieties and we tend to worry about how other people will respond to our ideas. The theory of “evaluation apprehension” suggests that group setting can impair our performance because we are afraid of being judged. Moreover, certain people may be more likely to clam up in a brainstorming session, such as those who are introverted or shy – but may excel when working alone.
While brainstorming is supposed to bring together lots of people to field ideas, a large group of people may make it harder to contribute – and be heard.
Research has shown that people are more likely to be productive when working alone, rather than in groups. According to researchers Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe on the issue: “It might be more effective to ask subjects first to develop their ideas in individual sessions and next have these ideas discussed and evaluated in a group session. The task of the group would then consist of evaluation rather than production of ideas.”
Another problem is the concept of “social loafing”, which means people are less likely to try as hard if there are other people willing to pick up the slack. Therefore, if some employees are more forthcoming with their ideas, others may not bother.
Brainstorming isn’t pointless, however, it just has to be done correctly. To have a useful session, it can help to have someone taking notes or facilitating the meeting - to make sure there is a structure and to avoid going off topic.
Giving people time alone with their ideas can pay-off too, particularly before you call a meeting,”Alderson added. "Send people off with the time and space to think properly and the quality of their ideas will probably improve.”