A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Brainstorming Does Not Work

The usefulness of brainstorming is over-estimated.

Can creativity be taught? How do we come up with a really innovative idea? What is the best method for generating ideas? For many, the answer to these problems is brainstorming. The dictionary definition of a brain-storm is, curiously, "temporary mental upset marked by uncontrolled emotion and violent action". But does it work to solve problems or come up with new ideas.

Brainstorming is used most frequently to generate as many solutions to a particular problem as possible because quantity is favoured over quality. The product of a brainstorming session is ideally a wide range of possible conclusions (options, solutions) which can be presented to a third party qualified to pick the best one. The basic assumption is that "two heads are better than one" and that together, in groups, innovative solutions can be found. But does brainstorming work? It can, but only under very special circumstances!

The technique or rules of brainstorming are quite simple. The first is free-wheeling. Participants are encouraged to be different, to break the mould, to be let-rip and allow any crazy idea or association into the solution. Silence is discouraged and nothing is unacceptable.

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The second rule is no criticism. In order to encourage the wild ideas the participants should not be put off by the disapproval of others. At this stage all ideas, however way out, (indeed because they are unusual) are equally valuable.

The third rule is that piggy-backing is OK. This means that it is quite acceptable to jump on the back of others; to run with their ideas and to follow someone down an unusual path. Indeed this is precisely why this activity is group-oriented. Groups supposedly give one synergy and energy, and provide stimulation. But do they? In all circumstances? One very important factor of whether decisions are better made by groups or by individuals rests in one of the characteristics of the problem: how well structured or poorly structured is the issue about which a decision is to be made?

Imagine working on a problem that requires several very specific steps and has a definite right or wrong answer, such as an arithmetic problem or an cross-word puzzle. How can one expect to perform on such a well structured task when working alone compared to when working with a group of people? Research findings indicate that groups performing well structured tasks tend to make better, more accurate decisions, but take more time to reach them than individuals. In one study, people worked either alone or in groups of five on several well structured problems. Comparisons between groups and individuals were made with respect to accuracy (the number of problems solved correctly) and speed (the time it took to solve the problems). It was found that the average accuracy of groups of five persons working together was greater than the average accuracy of five individuals working alone. However, it was also found that groups were substantially slower (as much as forty %) than individuals in reaching solutions.

Groups are accurate but slow. But why the potential advantage that groups might enjoy is being able to pool their resources and combine their knowledge to generate a wide variety of approaches to problems. For these benefits to be realized, however, it is essential that the group members have the necessary knowledge and skills to contribute to the group's task. In short, for there to be a beneficial effect of pooling of resources, there has to be something to pool. Two heads may be better than one only when neither is a blockhead—the "pooling of ignorance" does not help at all.

But most of the problems faced by organizations are not well structured. They do not have any obvious steps or parts, and there is no obviously right or wrong answer. Such problems are referred to as poorly structured. Creative thinking is required to make decisions on poorly structured tasks. For example, a company deciding how to use a newly developed chemical in its consumer products is facing a poorly structured task. Other poorly structured tasks include: coming up with a new product name, image or logo; or finding new or original uses for familiar objects like a coat-hanger, paper clip or brick.

Although you may expect that the complexity of such creative problems would give groups a natural advantage, this is not the case. In fact, research has shown that on poorly structured, creative tasks, individuals perform better than groups. Specifically, in one study people were given 35 minutes to consider the consequences of everybody suddenly going blind. Comparisons were made of the number of ideas/issues/outcomes generated by groups of four or seven people and a like number of individuals working on the same problem alone. Individuals were far more productive than groups and arrived at their answers much faster.

Thus what the research seems to indicate is the opposite of what many believe. Most brainstorming is used by creative organizations which care little about the skill composition of the problem solving groups who are then confronted with poorly structured tasks such as thinking of the name for a new product. In other words, brainstorming is used when it is least effective, and rarely when it is most effective.

How does brainstorming translate into other languages? For a non-native speaker it may be associated linguistically with an epileptic fit or a splitting headache. Certainly, for some people the experience of taking part in this activity to solve a creative, open-ended task leads to a migraine. The paradox of brainstorming is that this technique is most frequently used when research suggests it is least effective. 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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