Brainstorm or Braindrain?

All wet?
Those of you in the PR, advertising and marketing business are probably very familiar with the brainstorm model of idea generation, but I know it is also used in many other industries.

For those of you who have been left out of the brain rain, here is a crash course: During brainstorms, a group of colleagues closes themselves into a room and spontaneously blurts out ideas on the given topic. The ideas are excitedly written on giant Post-it notes adhered to the walls by a perky brain storm facilitator.

“There is no such thing as a bad idea,” the facilitator, pacing around the room frenetically, continually reminds us, usually after someone offers a particularly bad idea. “The wilder the idea, the better!”

The group is urged to generate a large quantity of ideas, and rapidly build off ideas with supplements or variations. Toys and treats are often offered, to foster creativity. A few people usually sit quietly looking at their watches, and looking idealess, while a relative few dominate the airwaves. The session ends with the chirpy facilitator congratulating the participants, pointing to all of the giant Post-it Notes on the walls as evidence of the world changing ideas that the brainstorm precipitated.

Brainstorming, which was particularly promoted by legendary BBDO ad man Alex Osborn, is the operational and cultural building block of many creatively oriented businesses. The brainstorm session is to PR and agencies as the assembly line is to a manufacturer. It’s the place where the company’s talent synergistically comes together to create MAGIC.

Or does it?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Intoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain examines the heavy workplace emphasis on consensus and teamwork generally, and the brainstorming work model specifically. Cain cites research done by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette in 1963. Dunnette asked ad executives and 3M executives to do a set of tasks. Some worked alone, and some in groups. Cain writes:

The results were unambiguous. The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases…

‘The “evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

…Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehehsion: meaning the fear of looking studid in front of one’s peers.”

So, why is brainstorming still such a big part of business operations?

Because we’re all afraid to protest, for fear we will look like killjoys who can’t appreciate all the giddy merriment and free Snickers bars?

Because all of those Post-it notes on the wall feel more like tangible evidence of productivity than the evidence offered by peer reviewed scientific research?

Because the extraverted leaders that tend to lead organizations personally are attracted to the energy such sessions gives them?

Quick, someone get some giant Post-it Notes, colored markers, beanbag chairs and Cheetos. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time!

– Loveland

13 thoughts on “Brainstorm or Braindrain?

  1. Newt says:

    I agree with Joe for once. Groups yield astoundingly mediocre thinking. But they make the meeting facilitator feel warm and fuzzy.

  2. PM says:

    I agree with Newt, for once!

    There are plenty of other ways to foster creativity, and this is one of my favorites:

    Still, there is a certain wisdom in crowds (, so maybe we should all get drunk together!

    Here is a history of the “brainstorming” meme:

  3. Minnesotan says:

    I feel I tend to come up with better ideas on my own. However, my best ideas often come after a brainstorm where something that was written or said (either by me or a colleague) has a chance to marinate in my brain for awhile. So it’s more like I get a chance to build on a something.

    By the way, my company uses white boards, not Post-It notes, we’re very progressive.

  4. I think two or three people who are comfortable with each other can get something good out of brainstorming, but more than three is pretty useless. Evaluation apprehension is huge, so there really needs to be trust and a “Yes, and” attitude for anything good to come of brainstorming.

    The larger question is about group work in general, which we are constantly training students to do on the theory they’ll need to work that way once they enter the world of work.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Different people seem to work different ways.

      For me, thinking by committee is as unnatural as writing by committee or doing calculus proofs by committee.

      I think brainstorms are really fun. I almost always enjoy them. But enjoyment isn’t the point. To do my best work I need to strip away all the social and interpersonal sideshows that happen in brainstorms…and just concentrate on the task at hand.

      The research seems to indicate that is true of lots of people.

      Daughter, the book spends a lot of time on the topic you raise about group work. She theorizes that because business schools attract extroverts, reward extraversion and punish introversion, MBA’s have an extreme bias in favor of organizing everything into teams, and that sacrifices the potential of what introverts could bring to the table if the workplace was organized in the way that allows them to excel.

      Cain writes: “Introverts are to extroverts what women were to men at that time (1963)–second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”

      I think its a compelling argument.

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    Great topic and nice change of pace. I was trying to think of where the introversion/extroversion subject was earlier explored here by the Crowd. Heck, if I was thrown into one of these sessions I’d break into a sweat and furtively slide toward the nearest exit. Hmm…could be I’m socially impaired(?)

  6. Kelly Groehler says:

    I distinctly recall one of the cardinal rules of brainstorming, shared at one of my first sessions: “There is no such thing as a bad idea.” Bullshit.

  7. Ellen Mrja says:

    I have to jump in and second Kelly’s comment. Just think what those men in 1963 could have come up with if women had been in the sessions. (Or, would it have been “Mad Men” writ large?)

    Anyway, my most creative ideas do not come at meetings. Almost nothing ever good comes from meetings, in my experience. Too much social pressure, exertion, history, flaming, etc.

    But afterward when ideas marinate – as Minnesotan put it – I come up with something brilliant when I’m not thinking about the “problem” at all. For example, when I’m walking to the car or doing dishes.

    Yes, I do the dishes. But my husband is the chef.

  8. john sherman says:

    We all know what work is and most of are familiar with make work which mimics work except that it doesn’t produce anything worthwhile. Wally in Dilbert, the best running account of life in the white collar zone, created the concept of “anti-work” i.e. stuff that requires others to do corrective work and therefore subtracts from production. Most brainstorming sessions in my experience seem to be make work and could be said to be good in so far as they prevent some of the people involved from doing worse.

    I tended of be a “social loafer” in hopes that maybe one of those big pads of paper would not be used up and I could forage it and take it home for my kids to draw on. At times it was tempting to see how far I could push the “there is no such thing as a bad idea” limit.

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