Brainstorming meetings have become the norm for inspiring creative solutions to business problems. But Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, says brainstorming meetings are a waste of time. In an excerpt of his book published on Medium, Ashton explains why we should do away with these meetings altogether.
Brainstorming, explains Ashton, is a concept invented by an advertising executive in 1939 as a way to develop creative solutions to business problems. They were seen as a way to encourage teams to come up with original ideas. The open meeting format in which participants are encouraged to suggest ideas and build on suggestions mentioned by others refraining from any and all criticism was thought to be a fun way to broaden the group’s thinking about a particular problem. Corporations soon adopted brainstorming, and by the end of the 20th century, brainstorming became the go-to approach for problem solving across many types of organizations. But Ashton points out numerous studies that show that brainstorming in fact, is largely ineffective.
Although one of the central tenets of brainstorming is that groups produce more ideas than individuals, one study conducted by scientists and advertising executives from 3M showed the opposite was true. Half of the participants were placed in groups of four while the other half worked alone. Those who worked alone generated 30% to 40% more ideas than those who worked in groups. Not only did individuals generate more ideas, but their ideas were of higher quality. Another study showed working as individuals was actually more productive. Those who were working in groups generated fewer and worse ideas because they were more likely to get fixated on one single idea.
Eliminating criticism, it turns out, results in worse ideas. Another pillar of brainstorming is that all ideas are good ideas. Ideas are thrown out onto the whiteboard without critique. This is supposed to make participants feel more liberated and therefore, more creative. But Ashton points to a study by researchers in Indiana who asked groups of students to think of brand names for three different products. Half of the groups were asked to withhold their criticism and the other half were told to criticize ideas as they were presented. Both groups produced the same amount of good ideas, but interestingly enough the group who didn’t put their criticism aside actually produced more ideas. Moreover, the study found that avoiding criticism only added more poor ideas to the list.
Effective, creative problem solving, Ashton argues, is therefore best done alone and evaluating ideas as they occur.