Perhaps more than any other category of professionals, creative types are expected to thrive in brainstorms. In the public’s imagination, their offices are filled with fidget toys and Post-it notes in an array of colors, all meant to absorb some of the energy of a group of fast-thinking, well-dressed hipsters deep in ideation mode.
But a new report based on a survey of 20,000 creatives from 197 countries suggests that, in fact, a majority of these professionals—including writers, musicians, photographers, and podcasters—find that brainstorming is largely unhelpful for solving a creative challenge.
The survey, commissioned by the Dutch file-sharing company WeTransfer, attests to the perils of this form of groupthink. “In the creative world we hear an awful lot about collaboration, but it seems that while working together is essential to bring an idea to life, it’s not that good for shaping ideas in the first place,” notes Rob Alderson, WeTransfer’s recently departed editor in chief.
WeTransfer’s annual survey of creatives echoes previous research about the need for individual preparation and introspection. “Send people off with the time and space to think properly and the quality of their ideas will probably improve,” Alderson says.
In the instinct to schedule meetings, it appears that we often neglect to give participants a chance to prepare and form their thoughts. It’s a crucial step that was championed by Alex Osborn, the legendary advertising executive who popularized brainstorming. “Osborn repeatedly extolled the virtues of solitude, of time spent far from the distractions of others, as part of his own creative process,” my Quartz colleague Lila MacLellan has noted. “The man who gave us today’s whiteboard-centric chaotic brainstorming ritual placed as much, if not more, faith in the individual imagination.”
WeTransfer’s survey suggests that dutiful meetings are a primary creativity killer. More than 40% of respondents now consider “work”—including the administrative tasks required of employees in big corporations—as a barrier to good thinking. “That’s a worrying number given almost 90% of our respondents work in creative fields which rise and fall on the power of good ideas,” the report states. “It seems we need to rethink the way we work and play, particularly how we spend time in the office.”
Independent thinking is also crucial when making decisions. Sure enough, nearly 80% of creative professionals in WeTransfer’s poll say they trust their own instincts and research when evaluating an idea. Only 18% will run an idea past colleagues and friends.
In polling creatives around the world, WeTransfer surfaced some fascinating geographic outliers. For instance, when it comes to the biggest distractions to thinking about ideas, the French are more likely to blame their social life than their jobs, their partners, or social media. The Chinese, meanwhile, are more prone to point the finger at their partners.
Though the growing body of evidence suggests brainstorming may not result in the best ideas, it isn’t entirely useless. A Northern Illinois University study published in the Journal Communication Reports underscores its value as a team-building activity rather than a tactical meeting. If nothing else, practicing tacit rules of brainstorming—positivity, openness, building on other’s ideas—promotes team cohesion and trust.