Creative LeadershipCreativity

Why Creativity Doesn’t Happen by Committee

I’ve written before that “brainstorming” simply doesn’t work. If you want to get together with friends and kick around a few ideas, ask for their advice, or discuss possibilities, great. But don’t think for a minute that a group will come up with the innovative, breakthrough idea.  

I love bring around creative people. I love getting their advice and counsel. But ultimately, if I’m looking for a game changing idea, then long experience has taught me that it’s time to close the door and start with a blank page. I know I’ll get some haters for that message, but here’s the reasons brainstorming by committee doesn’t work:

1)  Research indicates that a number of individuals working alone will generate more diverse and better quality ideas than the same number participating in a brainstorming session.  

2) When you have too many people commenting on creative work, it gets reduced to the lowest level possible. By it’s very nature, we can’t do breakthrough work if we have to please everyone.  Throw up a Google doc and ask everyone to comment, and everyone will – whether they have good ideas or not. Everyone wants to participate and look involved, so they can’t help themselves. 

3)  Theoretically, we’re not supposed to judge ideas during a brainstorming session, but even when others don’t, we judge our own ideas. After all, most breakthrough ideas sound ridiculous or crazy at first, and who wants to look crazy in front of their team? As a result, self-censorship happens and the best ideas get held back.

4) Introverts often get left out. Studies have shown that in most brainstorming sessions, the people with dominant, outgoing personalities get most of the attention. They’re assertive. They get excited. As a result, the introverts (who may be the smartest people in the room) back down or stay quiet.

5) Everyone generates ideas at a different speeds. Some people are good at spouting off the first thing that pops into their head, while others need more time. Personally, I can’t stand to be in a room where people are shouting suggestions because it’s just too distracting. I need quiet and some time to let my thinking develop.  

6) Brainstorming is usually championed by the least creative person on the team. He or she may be a leader or team member, but they know they need others to raise their profile because they’re not coming up with ideas on their own. So they believe a group will help.

If you’re a leader, stop having creative meetings and brainstorming sessions with your entire team. While it may seem obvious that a group of people is always better than one, study after study says otherwise. While organizations continue hosting brainstorming sessions, filling up conference rooms with people, poster boards, and sticky notes, the research says it simply doesn’t work. Sessions like this may generate more ideas, but it’s time you started a shift to generating better ideas.

Make the decision of who is the creative person you want in charge of and accountable for the project, and let them run. 

You’ll be glad you did.

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  1. Does a review sessions of a team bringing their prepared ideas to the table count as the same thing? Maybe I’m asking what is the next step?

    1. Great question Ryan. I think more in terms of a “previous” step. In other words, I like getting the team together, challenging them with the project, kick around some initial ideas, and then make assignments. That way, they start by being up to speed with everything. And I don’t assign everyone to come up with ideas. I hired them each for a different reason, so I’ll let them stay in their lane. Go off and being amazing! I think you’ll find that will make a real difference.

  2. I love this approach and agree that it is the quickest way to great ideas – usually emanating from the most creative thinker on the team. But when these wonderful ideas are presented it’s also very important to follow up with the “detail guys” and the aformentioned introverts who may think of better ways of executing or even enhancing things.

    1. Great point. The “detail guys” really matter, because execution really separates the leaders from the followers.

  3. This should be gospel in workplaces. I’m tired of being brought into these just becuase the lead person doesnt want to do thier homework. It’s total compensating for lack of vision, voice and creativity. Decide first, then ask for input.

  4. “Decide first, then ask for input.” This epitomises a great leader I had the pleasure of working with. He would come to the meeting with a great idea already in his head, not share it out loud, and then lead a discussion so that someone else in the team would eventually come up with the very idea he had. It gave the team input and buy-in, plus it helped him mentor us. I never noticed that he did this until the 7th year that I worked with him. It was a talent and not everyone has the social ability to do it. And he never called it a “brainstorming session”.

    1. That’s an encouraging story. In my twenties, I experienced exactly the opposite. My boss would get us all together ask for our ideas, and then a week later he’d come back presenting those EXACT same ideas as if they were his. It became a joke. I love the fact that you noticed and valued you’re leader’s techniques!

  5. This approach reminds me of Jesus’ behavior in Matthew 14 … Jesus knew what he was going to do in order to feed 5000 men and their families, but he wanted his disciples to come around to his way of thinking.

    1. That’s a great point. Former President Reagan said that there’s no limit to what can be accomplished if we don’t worry about who gets credit. Matthew 14 is a terrific illustration.

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