Why Other People Wreck Brainstorms (And How To Stop Them)

The reason brainstorms devolve into groupthink has to do with the way memory works. Here’s how to get around that.

Why Other People Wreck Brainstorms (And How To Stop Them)
[Photo: Flickr user Eliana]

You’re probably brainstorming all wrong. Chances are you’re using some form of the rules that were initially devised by the adman Alex Osborn that started in the 1950s. His process sounds intuitively reasonable: Get a bunch of people together. Have them throw out ideas without worrying about constraints. Don’t criticize the ideas, just build on them. Don’t worry about how strange the ideas are, just come up with as many as you can.

The problem with these rules for brainstorming is simple: They frankly don’t work. We know now a good deal more about human psychology and brain science than Osborn did, but we’re still brainstorming as though we don’t. Many studies over the years have actually documented a productivity loss from his method of brainstorming. Groups that follow Osborn’s rules come up with fewer ideas–and fewer good ideas–than the same number of people working alone.

Who’s at fault here? Actually, it isn’t poor Osborn, who was doing the best with what he knew (or thought he knew) about how teams work. The real culprit, simply put, is other people.

The Trouble With Groups

A big reason for this failure comes from the nature of group interaction itself. The first person to say something in the group is most often the biggest extrovert in the room (or perhaps the biggest narcissist). Regardless of who they are, though, the idea thrown out by that first person acts a little like a contaminant; it influences the working memory of everyone else in the group from that point forward.

That’s because as soon as you hear an idea, it serves as a retrieval cue. It automatically reaches into your memory and starts to pull out information related to that idea. By the time a few people have thrown out ideas, the entire group is now thinking about the problem in just about the same way. As a result, groups explore an ever narrower range of potential ideas than individuals who work alone.

But that doesn’t mean all group idea generation is totally doomed. There’s actually a pretty straightforward way to think about brainstorming that gets around the way our memory operates. First, the group needs to think divergently—they need to come up with as many different possibilities as they can. Second, the group needs to converge on a few ideas that it wants to pursue.

When people work alone, they tend to diverge in their thinking, because each person follows his or her own train of thought about the issue. When groups work together, they tend to converge in their thinking, because the discussion leads everyone to think about the problem in a similar way. That points to a pretty easy fix for the traditional brainstorm.

More Options, Less Collaboration

At the early stages, you want to produce as many different options as possible. That means you want people to work alone so that each person thinks about the problem in ways that aren’t contaminating the ideas of others.

One really simple way to do that is to send around a statement of the problem you’re trying to solve, and to get everyone to send you (as group leader) at least three different options for solving it.

The way a lot of brainstorming sessions tend to work instead, the group leader simply sends around a memo or agenda before the group gets together, outlining the issue at hand but not actually demanding independent work before the team convenes. But without these solo brainstorms first, groupthink is basically inevitable.

It’s only after those independent ideas are generated that the group leader should collect them and send them around to the entire group. But it’s not time to put your heads together yet. Still working alone, group members should look at each idea and build on it. This way, each person is still taking their own distinct approach to the variety of ideas generated by other people.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it doesn’t actually have to be. In fact, it can make your brainstorm much less mentally taxing than most tend to be. One option at this stage is to send each person two to three ideas generated by somebody else, then ask them to build on just those ideas–everyone in the group doesn’t have to add something new to the ideas of everyone else in the group. Then collect the results and, if you need to, take a break.

The most productive brainstorms can take place in short bursts like this–they don’t need to turn in marathons. Ultimately, though, you will want to keep circulating the ideas to other group members (ideally in manageable chunks) until everyone’s had a chance to see and build on all of them. Another benefit of taking your time and breaking this part of the process is that you can give people a chance to spend real time on each idea–before tossing a single one out. Plus, this way everybody gets to see both the ideas their peers have come up with as well as some of the ways they’ve been built up and elaborated on by others.

Talking It All Out

Now it’s time to finally get the group together. At this stage, you’ll have a lot of material to get through, so it’s helpful to continue your “small bites” approach: Converge on just a handful of the ideas that you’ve had everybody work on independently. Bring each one up for discussion, and give people a chance to combine some of the ideas that were generated. Ultimately, you want to find a few ideas that seem like good candidates for implementing.

Unlike traditional brainstorming, idea generation techniques that use this structure tend to work well. Groups whose members work alone when they need to diverge, and together when they need to converge, generate more ideas and better ideas than people who only work alone.

Of course, a technique like this is time consuming–much more so than a standard-issue, Osborn-inspired brainstorm. So you should only use it for the types of projects that really require your whole team’s effort. Even if you don’t want to spend this much time on a given problem, you should still get your group members to generate an initial set of ideas individually before bringing everyone together for a discussion.

It’s the only way to prevent a group from swiftly bulldozing a host of other options it might have considered, and driving itself into a corner. Instead, you can benefit from turning over a range of possibilities in your teammates’ minds. If brainstorms are about thinking, after all, then this is the most thoughtful approach.

About the author

Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, and most recently, Brain Briefs, co-authored with his "Two Guys on Your Head" co-host Bob Duke, which focuses on how you can use the science of motivation to change your behavior at work and at home.