Group Brainstorming: 60 Years On

Written by Diana Rus

Oct 28, 2013

Creativity and innovation have become the buzzwords of the day. For instance, in the 2012 IBM CEO study, more than half of 1700 surveyed CEOs saw innovation as a key resource of sustained economic value. In the same study, 61% of CEOs reported creativity as being one of the traits critical for employee success.
Sadly however, a lot of our beliefs regarding creativity and innovation are based on myths, common-sense intuition and the opinions of high-paid creativity gurus instead of being rooted in actual empirical evidence. In this post, I will use insights gleaned from empirical research to shed some light on one such deeply ingrained belief, namely that: “Groups are more creative than individuals.”

Ever since Osborn coined the term “brainstorming” and developed a set of rules for formal brainstorming in his 1953 book, group brainstorming seems to have become the preferred method for idea generation and problem solving in organizations. Participants in a brainstorming session are instructed to generate as many ideas as they possibly can, without fear of evaluation or criticism. Moreover, they are encouraged to freewheel and improve upon each other’s ideas. The underlying principle behind a formal brainstorming procedure is that quantity breeds quality. That is, the more ideas that are generated, the more likely it is that there will be some good ideas among them. Osborne believed that groups, following a strict brainstorming protocol, would generate more ideas than individuals working alone.

What does the empirical record actually show?

A number of different studies (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987 ; Paulus & Brown, 2007) show that nominal groups, that is, individuals brainstorming alone, clearly outperform interactive groups both in the quantity and in the quality of ideas generated. The main reasons for this productivity loss in brainstorming groups seem to be:

  1. Production blocking: In a group setting, individual team members have to take turns talking. When one person speaks, the others have to listen and wait for the person to stop talking before they can express their own ideas. This waiting time can inhibit the idea generation process, as ideas are either forgotten or the formation of new ideas is blocked. To make matters worse, the presence of highly dominant group members tends to exacerbate this effect.
  2. Social loafing: If a lot of people are generating ideas as a group, the pressure on each individual to perform optimally actually decreases. Since the outcome of the work is judged collectively, individual group members may be less motivated to contribute and may consequently exert less effort.
  3. Evaluation apprehension: Despite the strict rules of brainstorming suggesting that there should be no judgment in the idea generation phase, some people are afraid of being evaluated and consequently, will be less likely to express their ideas.

Should we write group brainstorming off?

Not necessarily! One consistent finding is that people engaged in group brainstorming sessions are more satisfied with the process and believe that they are more productive than when working alone. Hence, group brainstorming may serve some purpose, albeit not the intended one of generating a high number of creative ideas. If the goal is to create some common team spirit or to improve team morale and engagement, initiating a group brainstorming session might in fact pay off.

What are some alternatives to group brainstorming?

  1. One alternative would be to have hybrid brainstorming sessions, where individuals switch between generating ideas on their own and generating ideas as a group. This would solve some of the production blocking issues and would help in reaping the synergies that can come from freewheeling and combining and improving on each other’s ideas.
  2. Another alternative is the use of electronic forms of brainstorming. The results of a recent meta-analysis by Derosa, Smith and Hantula, 2007 suggest that electronic brainstorming groups are more productive and more satisfied with the process than face-to-face groups. More importantly, they found that large electronic brainstorming groups generated more and better ideas than nominal brainstorming groups (i.e., individuals working alone). This is where different crowdsourcing platforms could in fact add a lot of value, given that a diverse pool of participants working together could easily create synergies to generate a high number of creative ideas.
About Author

About Author

Diana Rus

Diana Rus is a leadership, creativity and innovation expert who is passionate about bringing ideas to life and helping organizations steer the innovation process by combining the rigor of scientific research with a pragmatic focus on booking tangible results. She holds a PhD in Management and is the founder at Creative Peas - a company that helps businesses create innovation cultures that drive performance and engagement. Her specialities include Innovation Management, Leadership & Management Development, Creativity Training and Public Speaking on Leadership, Creativity & Innovation. Diana tweets under @CreativePeas.

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