Brainstorming is broken.
We all know the standard method of brainstorming:
- Get a bunch of people together.
- Generate lots of ideas.
- Don’t be critical.
There’s one problem with this system.
It’s totally wrong.
1) Don’t work in a group
The research consistently shows that individuals who generate ideas on their own and then meet afterward come up with more (and better) ideas.
There’s just one problem with brainstorming: it doesn’t work. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarizes the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In fact, the very first empirical test of Osborn’s technique, which was performed at Yale in 1958, soundly refuted the premise. The experiment was simple: Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to carefully follow Osborn’s brainstorming guidelines. As a control sample, forty-eight students working by themselves were each given the same puzzles. The results were a sobering refutation of brainstorming. Not only did the solo students come up with twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups but their solutions were deemed more “feasible” and “effective” by a panel of judges. In other words, brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group. Instead, the technique suppressed it, making each individual less creative.
Performance gets worse as group size increases.
The results were unambiguous. The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists. Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
2) Don’t generate as many ideas as possible.
Don’t write down every idea “no matter how crazy.” Rules help.
Focusing your efforts on being as creative as possible reduces the number of ideas but increases the number of good ideas.
Researchers next looked for idea-generating rules that would work even better than Osborn’s. They told their subjects: “The more imaginative or creative your ideas, the higher your score will be. Each idea will be scored in terms of (1) how unique or different it is— how much it differs from the common use and (2) how valuable it is— either socially, artistically, economically, etc.” These instructions are very different from those given for classic brainstorming because people are being told to use specific directions in judging which ideas they come up with. Groups working with these instructions have fewer ideas than brainstorming groups, but they have more good ideas. What’s most important is being explicitly told to be imaginative, unique, and valuable; then, it’s okay if your critical faculties are still engaged. Osborn had one thing right: Most people use the wrong criteria to evaluate their ideas; they think about what will work, about what worked before, or about what is familiar to them. This discovery— that when subjects are told they’ll be evaluated for creativity, they’re more creative than when they’re told not to use any criteria at all— has been reproduced repeatedly in the laboratory. When groups are asked to suggest good, creative solutions, they have fewer ideas but those ideas are better than those generated by groups using the brainstorming rules.
3) Be critical and fight.
Don’t be open and accepting. Fight. When people debate, they are more creative.
Which teams did the best? The results weren’t even close: while the brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, people in the debate condition were far more creative. On average, they generated nearly 25 percent more ideas. The most telling part of the study, however, came after the groups had been disbanded. That’s when researchers asked each of the subjects if he or she had any more ideas about traffic that had been triggered by the earlier conversation. While people in the minimal and brainstorming conditions produced, on average, two additional ideas, those in the debate condition produced more than seven. Nemeth summarizes her results: “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the [most] important instruction in this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”
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