Research shows that brainstorming isn't an effective technique for generating orginial ideas. Here's how one small change can make the difference in your next session.
In an intriguing interview with Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Originals,” Grant explains what’s wrong with brainstorming.
In reality say Grant, “if you take five students and put them in a brainstorming group together, you will get fewer ideas and less original ideas than if you had taken those same five students and let them work independently, in separate rooms, by themselves.”
“Teachers find this maddening when they learn about it,” says Grant, “because it goes against the idea of teaching teamwork and two heads are better than one.”
According to Grant, there are three reasons brainstorming produces fewer and less original ideas.
First is a pragmatic issue called “production blocking” meaning everyone can’t talk at once. As a result, according to Grant, some ideas and some people “just don’t get heard.”
Another is “ego threat” which occurs when people are nervous about looking stupid or foolish, so they hold back on their most original ideas.
Third, there is conformity. “One or two ideas get raised that are popular. Everyone wants to jump on the majority bandwagon, as opposed to bringing in some radical, different ways of thinking,” says Grant.
Number three reminds me of a memorable experience analyzing two important decisions made by the Kennedy administration. One was the Bay of Pigs and the other was the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the former was fiasco, the latter was an unmitigated success. Both decisions were thought through by the same small group of advisors within Kennedy’s inner circle. Where “groupthink” dominated the Bay of Pigs decision, the team learned a lot of valuable lessons about brainstorming and decision making from that first experience that led them to not only a different outcome, but a different decision making process entirely when it came to countering Khrushchev in the ultimate face off.
Bottom line, avoiding conformity and ego threat are really desirable outcomes to using a different strategy than brainstorming.
So, what “is” a good alternative to brainstorming? According to Grant, it’s “brainwriting”.
With a brainwriting strategy, you put people in separate rooms working individually, jotting down their own ideas. “What you get is all of the ideas on the table, and then you can bring the group together for what the group does best, which is the wisdom of crowds. The evaluating. The idea selecting. The figuring out which of these ideas really has potential to be, not only novel, but also useful,” says Grant.
So, the next time you hear yourself saying “Let’s brainstorm on this” – backtrack. “What I mean to say was, grab a sheet of paper and jot down this question we need to consider / problem we need to solve. Then everyone go back to your desk for 15 minutes. I’ll set a timer. Jot down every idea you can think of, every option is on the table. Then turn your sheets back in after 15 minutes, and we’ll go through the next phase of this exercise.
Imagine that. In the same amount of time, you’ll get a bigger pool of more original ideas using brainwriting. That’s a simple change worth making.