Why Brainstorming Rarely Works

Brainstorming is popular – way popular – especially in corporations and nonprofit organizations. But the truth is, research has shown over and over that people produce better quality ideas when they start by working alone. And yet, companies, nonprofits, and churches have enshrined “brainstorming” as the #1 go-to method for coming up with new ideas. Why?

My thinking is that creativity is so tough, it’s easier to get lots of people in a room, so the pressure on individuals is off. In other words, the people who should be coming up with the breakthrough ideas, pass it off to “group think” and duck the difficult work of developing the original and creative thinking.

Another reason is that a cardinal rule (I’ve even taught this in the past) is that there’s no place for criticism in a brainstorming session. The idea is that when you criticize someone for a idea you don’t like, you may hurt their feelings and they’ll clam up. Worse, perhaps their next idea would have been the big one, except now your criticism has shut them down.

Here’s my response – if you’re working with people who get their feelings hurt when you take a hard look at their ideas, then you’re working with amateurs. Creative professionals aren’t sissies – they understand that ideas should be vetted and yes – criticized – before they go to market. Don’t be a jerk about it and don’t talk down to people, but if you’re working with people who’s feelings get hurt every time their ideas are criticized, then they shouldn’t even be in the room.

So here’s my recommendation: Start individually. Give everyone on the team the task of developing the first stages of the idea. And only after they actually have something, then bring them in the room together to discuss, debate, and even (dare I say) criticize the ideas.

The critical step is “only after they have something.” Which means if they aren’t willing to do the hard work of starting with a blank page and actually developing rough ideas, then they shouldn’t be allowed in the room. Getting more people in the room doesn’t help coming up with original ideas. A group can hone, craft, and develop the ideas, but time after time, you’ll find the best ideas start with a single person.

How about you? Have you experienced the failure of brainstorming?

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  1. Brainstorming has some advantages, it encourages divergent thinking, it allows people to riff off other people’s ideas, and so on. The problem is that brainstorming has become to be seen by many as the problem solution process, when instead it should be a possible step in the process.

  2. Agree, it’s like in writing new music process. I don’t know any good song written during a practice with band. It is always somebody brings melodies from home and then the band shape them together. Very often the best songs are written by single person, others just make some small arrangements.

  3. I think that we’re overlooking the primary difference between extroverts (‘I don’t know what I think until I start speaking’) and introverts (‘give me time alone to think about it’). However, I would agree that frequently great ideas start with a single person and that the group can hone it. But, the way the group hones it will be based on the personality of the members and the corporate personality of the group. I’m an extrovert, I NEED the group. My wife is an introvert, she NEEDS space and thinking time.

    1. Good point Richard. Although I’m probably an extrovert, and still like to develop my own ideas. The question is about productivity. More and more research indicates that whatever the personality type, more original ideas are created by individuals rather than groups. I like groups as well, but long ago realized that it’s better to start alone…

      1. I’m extrovert too, and, like you, come up with most ideas alone. However, I find two things: Firstly that honing works better in a group (explaining the idea I suddenly realise things I didn’t know I had thought) and secondly I have to be aware of introverts on the team who need time to process and come back to the dialogue.

  4. I’ve continually found that having one or multiple ideas before coming to the brainstorming table is much more effective. The few times that I’ve thrown a team together before developing ideas it took longer to create than preplanning the meeting. Now, prior to each meeting we distribute the subject matter and each person has time to develop ideas prior to the big meeting. I’ve also found that planting ideas weeks prior to meeting also helps to get higher quality ideas. Those “Ah Ha” moments tend to come at the most unexpected times.

  5. Very good advice. I love collaboration – but it starts best with giving people topics to think through before they walk in the room. One of my main ‘beefs” is being invited to a meeting, but not told what the meeting is about! I prefer coming to the table prepared and ready to give thought-through and even researched ideas.

  6. I really liked this post Phil. “Brainstorming” sessions sometimes become a happy hour, or a good excuse to relax a little bit.
    I’m doing a research about effective Christian television production, focused in the designing stage and audience understanding, and definitely I need to agree with you that the best ideas are originated in a craft process and not in a “get together” moment.

    PS: Your quote defining an effective media ministry in your book Successful Christian TV is just… perfect! God bless

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