Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Try This Technique Instead

Ever been in a meeting where one loudmouth's mediocre idea dominates? Then you know brainstorming needs an overhaul.

Brainstorming, in its current form and by many metrics, doesn't work as well as the frequency of "team brainstorming meetings" would suggests it does.

Sharing ideas in groups isn't the problem, it's the "out-loud" part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. "As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you're not thinking of your own ideas," Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, told Fast Company. "Sub-consciously you're already assimilating to my ideas."

That process is called "anchoring," and it crushes originality. "Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation," Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. "They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem."

Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called conformity pressure. People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped. We've all been in meetings like this: Some jerk says the obvious thing before anyone else, taking all of the glory; everyone else harrumphs. Brainstorm session over.

To avoid these problems, both Thompson and Nordgren suggest another, quieter process: brainwriting. (The phrase, now used by Thompson, was coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus.) The general principle is that idea generation should exist separate from discussion. Although the two professors have slightly different systems, they both offer the same general solution: write first, talk second.

Brainstorming works best if before or at the beginning of the meeting, people write down their ideas. Then everyone comes together to share those ideas out loud in a systematic way. Thompson has her participants post all the ideas on a wall, without anyone's name attached and then everyone votes on the best ones. "It should be a meritocracy of ideas," she said. "It's not a popularity contest." Only after that do people talk.

Nordgren, via an app he developed called Candor, has people record their thoughts before the meeting. Then, everyone goes around in a circle saying each idea.

This write first, discuss later system eliminates the anchoring problem because people think in a vacuum, unbiased by anyone else. Of course, people still jot down the most obvious ideas, which aren't necessarily bad ideas. But in brainstorming the goal is quantity, not quality. To avoid spending too much time on repetitive suggestions, people using Candor only present ideas someone else hasn't already said.

In her studies, Thompson found that brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups, she writes in her book Creative Conspiracy. "I was shocked to find there's not a single published study in which a face-to-face brainstorming group outperforms a brainwriting group," she said. In Nordgren's research he has found that the process leads to more diverse and candid ideas.

Discussion still has its merits, but should only take place after the group has generated a variety of distinct ideas with which to work. Raw ideas rarely work. It's the permutation and combination of the outlandish and banal that lead to the best proposals. "Usually the best idea that is selected at the end isn't exactly what anyone came up with at the beginning; the idea has been edited," Nordgren added.

The best part of introverted thinking, however, is that it cuts down on what I'll call the "loudmouth meeting-hog phenomenon." You know the type: the person who, along with one or two other people, dominate the conversation. (Here Fast Company's Baratunde Thurston acts out this very scenario with Behance Co-Founder Scott Belsky.) Thompson's studies have found that in most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. With brainwriting, everyone gets a chance.

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[Image: Flickr user Marco Arment]

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42 Comments

  • Steven McKinney

    Nice article. But this is nothing new. Several companies have been using these ideas instead of traditional brainstorming for decades. Writing ideas down and posting it on the wall was pioneered by Disney among others back as early as the 90s. We did this in graduate business school over 10 years ago to some success. Sometimes you post ideas on the wall and discuss during a meeting. sometimes you post ideas on a wall and leave them there for awhile for people to read and react. Should traditional brainstorming meetings be the only option, it does help to send out agendas and info well before hand for participants to read and begin to formulate ideas. The old meeting invite with the title "brainstorming session" leads to the problems written about above.

  • agoldmann

    I like the idea of Candor but would lieket o point out that there is a much more intuite and veresatile tool also cost free which is called Tsop-it. "tsop" stands for "post" and is speld backward. You can reach and use it under www.tsop-it.com. I use it all the time

  • Even though creativity is considered one of the key ingredients for innovation, it is surprising how small is the number of startups focused on helping people work with ideas. Seenapse.it is a great crowdthinking tool for connecting unrelated ideas . You should check it out, I'm pretty sure there's nothing else like it out there.

  • Yves Stuber

    yes. but: other ideas give you another input for further ideas. in my opinion that's the main positive thing of brainstorming. weiting down is good for answering a basic question, but then ideas shod flow one dirsction or another. or did i miss something?

  • Gerald Mangalindan RN

    This article is helpful for people who frequently attend to meetings. This will make the meeting run efficiently and productively.

  • Adrian Holzer

    Dear Rebecca, we have created SpeakUp (www.seance.ch) which allows to both write down ideas anonymously and also rate each other's ideas. We have evaluated it in the university context (to encourage students to ask questions in large classrooms), feel free to try it out and provide us feedback. Cheers. Adrian

  • oj_metei

    Dear Rebecca, Congratulation in your much unique dimension of insights and innovative sharing. I have been a teacher, lecturer and continuing trg and workshop Facilitation as trainer and facilitator during last 37 year and have been all along feeling blind following of any method such as Brainstroming at times robs real optmum period of drawing out real creative ideas from participants( while not minimizing need for brainstroming at its right time and situation). I wish your contnuity on creative critique and sharing perspective series. With regards and respect........................: OJ Metei

  • Cristina Kiss

    in many fields this, I'm sure it’s a fantastic idea but, in an advertising agency usually great ideas are born by combining different ideas or thought; sometimes, a bad idea has a word in it that inspire someone else for a good idea. and at the end of a brainstorming you have 2 or 3 ideas that wore born right there with everyone’s contribution. I believe that 1 idea “made” with little pieces from a group of people will always be better than an idea of just one mind.

  • Most people are perfectly capable of having excellent ideas both on their own and in the company of others. Although research shows that the most original and effective ideas are generated individually, the most important elements are:

    1. Having a succinct brief or challenge.
    2. Getting people to prepare properly.
    3. Having some decent techniques to encourage more lateral thought.

    There are 20 of them here: http://theideasbook.net/

  • With the right techniques, people are eminently capable of having ideas both on their own and in the company of others. Research shows that the most effective and original ones come from individual thought - after a clear brief. The optimum number in a collective meeting is 4.

    Overall though, the most important thing is to use some decent techniques to unlock more lateral thought. There are 20 of them here: http://theideasbook.net/

  • Hi Rebecca. First off, let me say I generally find the articles from FC marvelous and enjoy reading your aricles.

    However (while I can see some of Leigh Thompson's concerns) I'm personally not prepated to say "BrainStorming" itself is not working or "broken". Are you aware of the IDEO/Stanford d.school Design Thinking metholody?

    I've written my thoughts (http://bit.ly/1ooShUw) on why I think most of these issues are already being addressed with Design Thinking's 8x Brainstorming rules. Not sure you'll (or others will) agree but we use these all the time and don't really suffer from 'Doom Loops', etc.

    Maybe those techniques would have had a different effect on the Kellogg School research/stats?

    thanks, w.

  • Also, for the record, IDEO would tell you that Brainstorming does work. Review Tom Kelly's Book, "The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm." There's an entire chapter on what a good brainstorming session looks like, and how important it is for IDEO's success.

  • Interesting article, even if the terminology is flawed. This article doesn't describe the classic "Brainstorming" as described by the person who coined the term, Alex Osborn, the article describes a B-S session.

    And while brainwriting does indeed generate more ideas per minute than even classic brainstorming, starting with it early limits the range of ideas, because the cross-pollination among the group isn't complete. And why only use one technique when you can use a range of techniques that appeal to different types of people.

    Also, for the record, the acknowledged inventor of Brainwriting is not Paulus at U.T. Proper citation: Source: H. Geschka, “Methods and Organization of Idea Generation,” from Creativity Week Two, 1979 Proceedings.

  • john.collaga

    Good article. This is similar to agile retrospective. Part of an agile software development lifecycle. Similar concepts/principles can be applied to any projects or teams.

  • john.collaga

    Good article. This is a similar, if not the same concept, as agile retrospectives in software development. The same practice can be applied to any projects or teams.

  • john.collaga

    Good article. This is similar to agile retrospective. Part of an agile software development lifecycle. Similar concepts/principles can be applied to any projects or teams.