Think back to the last time you had a really creative idea. Where were you? What were you doing? If you’re anything like the thousands of people I’ve asked in my work on decision-making over the last decade, from high school students to senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, then odds are you didn’t say, “During a brainstorming session.” Over the years, only a handful of people have told me a brainstorming session is where they came up with their best ideas.
Around the world, all kinds of people and organizations set out to solve creative problems by brainstorming. As a formal technique, brainstorming dates back to 1938, when advertising giant BBDO promoted its top vice president, Alex Osborn, to save the company after it had lost a large number of clients during the Great Depression.
A brief history of the brainstorm
To attract new clients, Osborn decided that he should bring his whole team together to come up with the best ideas for advertising campaigns. Brainstorming, or “thinking up” as Osborn originally called it, became their most-used method for ideation. And it took the world by storm: Osborn and BBDO pumped out advertising campaigns to encourage U.S. armament during WWII and for high-octane clients such as General Electric, Chrysler, American Tobacco, BF Goodrich, and DuPont. As the method gained traction, Osborn renamed the strategy. The act itself was a “brain-storm,” a sudden neurological explosion from individuals in a group setting. And so came the pervasive gathering of colleagues saying, “Let’s brainstorm a solution.” Whenever we need an idea fast, we brainstorm.
Why did Osborn invent brainstorming? Here was his problem: In company-wide meetings, junior staff rarely spoke. Senior management dominated the conversation. His solution was to hold weekly “group-thinking” sessions that gave everyone an equal chance to speak. He ran the meeting and made sure to ask the junior staff for their thoughts.
There are plenty of variations on the basic theme of brainstorming. This is a list of rules from IDEO, a famous creative company that offers a brainstorming service to clients:
- Go for quantity.
- Encourage wild ideas.
- Defer judgment.
- Build on the ideas of others.
- Stay focused on the topic.
These are the same rules Osborn came up with in 1938. From banks to advisory firms, tech companies to manufacturers, public relations agencies to media companies, nonprofits and government agencies, brainstorming dominates creative thinking today. But let’s ask an obvious question: Is brainstorming really creative? It certainly solved Osborn’s original problem of getting everyone to speak. And if you were to pick a problem and practice these rules in any social setting, it would certainly involve others in an interesting conversation. It can be fun to brainstorm. But, does it actually generate great ideas?
Analyzing the five rules of brainstorming
First, brainstorming is a numbers game: Rule 1: The more oysters you crack open, the greater your chance of finding a pearl. Rules 2 and 3 serve the first rule, to make sure that all ideas see the light of day. As for Rule 4, building sounds promising. But if you take the first three rules seriously, you might have a hundred ideas to build on. If I say, “Let’s make our product glow red in moonlight and green in sunlight,” and you say, “Let’s make it transparent,” what do we do?
Then someone else says, “Make it reflect the color of the sky.” And that’s only three ideas. When we mix in dozens of other ideas, we have what I call “idea diarrhea.”
Last but not least, Rule 5, which, in my opinion, is a straitjacket. You might have experienced this in your own work, where you realize you’re solving the wrong problem and you shift your focus to something else. That means finding the problem is part of the creative process—you don’t assume you have the right problem and then go on to brainstorm solutions.
A case for why the brainstorm doesn’t work
The evidence is unambiguous. In a seminal study on brainstorming from 1987, social psychologists Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe collected ideas from participants gathered in groups of four in a traditional brainstorming session. They then took the ideas of four individuals who worked separately and collected their ideas into one list. Researchers went on to compare the output from both groups and found that participants who generated ideas alone produced significantly more than individuals who worked in traditional group sessions: Those who ideated alone produced twice as many unique ideas as those who worked in a brainstorming group.
Increasingly, scientists have seen the creation of bias embedded in the group brainstorming process—and the outsized impact this has on creativity. Our biases are informed by group feedback. And we have come to understand just how stifling group dynamics can be on an individual’s creativity. Individuals tend to self-censor in a variety of ways: They omit data, anchor on whatever idea was presented first or most recently, choose what’s most convenient, and so on. This process tends to compound over time and create groupthink, which discourages creativity and individual responsibility. Consequently, academics and practitioners alike have become disenchanted with the act of brainstorming as a formal method of idea generation.
What brainstorming really does is draw from the direct experience of people in the room; in other words, information sharing and surfacing. If I tell you, “Quick, throw out an idea!” you’ll draw on what you already know. If the people in the room have lots of experience—and diverse experience—brainstorming is very efficient for solving ordinary problems. That’s because the sum total of the experience in the room probably has all the solutions you need. But note that Henry Ford didn’t ask his engineers to brainstorm. He asked them to search the world for ideas to use—that’s how Pa Klann found the moving meatpacking line.
Think about it this way: If five people brainstorm as a group, they draw on the knowledge of only five people. We’ll call that “in-the-box” thinking. I ask you to draw on the knowledge of all humanity throughout recorded history, invest in hearing the ideas of others, and expand your knowledge beyond your comfort zone. We will refer to that as “out-of-the-box” thinking. Which seems more creative to you? When it comes time to get your creative ideas, we need to think bigger. Don’t default to brainstorming.
Excerpted from Think Bigger by Sheena Iyengar, published by Columbia Business School Publishing. Copyright (c) 2023 Sheena Iyengar. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.