Is brainstorming an ideas generator or a myth? – a New Yorker State of Mind

I’ve read about the brainstorm technique–

work as a team and wildly ideate

don’t criticize or ideas deflate.

But I want to think alone,

where not a white board you’ll find–

I’m in a New Yorker State of Mind.

(with apologies to Billy Joel)

In January of 2012, Jonah Lehrer wrote an article for The New Yorker titled: “Groupthink – the brainstorming myth.” After a lengthly and interesting discussion about Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming, Lehrer wrote:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

 According to Alex Osborn, the underlying assumption of brainstorming is that conventional meetings over-emphasize critical or judgmental thinking and all but ignore creative thinking.  “Their usual purpose is to consider whether this is better than that; and such juries work well because we all love the role of critic.” The purpose of brainstorming, then, is not to saturate participants in positive feedback. Its purpose is to create an environment where ideas can be put forward and built upon without being destroyed at inception.

To support his argument that brainstorming doesn’t work, Lehrer cites “an empirical test” performed at Yale University in 1958. In this study 48 male undergraduates were divided into 12 groups. They were given a series of creative puzzles which they were asked to solve. Another group of 48 students, acting as the control group, were asked to solve the same puzzles–but to do so individually. The total number of ideas produced by the individual thinkers was nearly double the combined ideas generated by the 12 groups. “The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn.” Really?

The 1958 Yale study cited was not designed to test either the effectiveness or validity of brainstorming. It was designed to examine the effectiveness of group versus individual use of brainstorming. All 96 of the students involved in the study were encouraged to follow the guidelines for brainstorming. The study did not prove that brainstorming doesn’t work. At best, it proved that individuals using the brainstorming guidelines produce more ideas than groups using the brainstorming guidelines. But the study didn’t prove that either.

Osborn not only established guidelines for brainstorming, he provided strong recommendations for groups to follow before and during brainstorming sessions. (As mentioned above, brainstorming was invented to overcome the tendency of groups to be critical.) Here are some of those recommendations as put forward in his book, Your Creative Power– “How big should a brainstorming group be? The ideal number is between 5 and 10. Who should be involved? The less experienced sometimes spark better; but the ideal group should include both brass and rookies. At least two of the group should be self-starters, and they should begin sparking the moment the problem is stated.”

The Yale brainstorming groups consisted of only 4 members each and they were randomly assigned. Did each of those groups of four have two “self-starters” capable of generating ideas the moment the problems were stated? Hardly likely.

And, this is extremely important, did each group have an experienced facilitator managing the brainstorming process? Osborn stated that in his experience the few brainstorming sessions that were fiascoes were “due to failure of leadership.” Here, according to Dr. Scott Isaksen, President of The Creative Problem Solving Group, is the answer:

“The researchers did not attend to the suggestions and recommendations for the best-case application of brainstorming. The experimenters were familiar with the tool but had not been formally trained. The groups were not carefully selected based on the task. There were no leadership or recording roles within the group. The groups were randomly put together and given the same instructions regarding the guidelines for brainstorming as those in the individual condition. There was no special orientation for the group condition as required by Osborn.”

There’s more to Lehrer’s argument that brainstorming doesn’t work than the Yale Study of 1958. I’ll continue to challenge his New Yorker State of Mind in the next post. I’d love to learn your thoughts about this post…please enter any comments in the comments section below.

And if you’d like to know more about brainstorming, download a free copy of my ebook: How To Run A Brainstorming Session That Works. Simply enter your email in the box below and click on the DOWNLOAD IT NOW button. You’ll be happy you did.

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