Marketing Idea No. 294: Our love affair with “Brainstorming” and why there is always heartache at the end of this rainbow

In a famous book published in 1948 called “Your Creative Power”, Alex Osborn, a partner in the legendary advertising agency B.B.D.O. talked about a mysterious, never heard before process regarding “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas”. He mentioned that when a group tackles a creative problem, all the members should engage in this process called “brainstorm”, which as per his definition means “using the brain to storm a creative problem – and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

The first empirical test of brainstorming technique was performed in Yale University in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduate students were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles and asked to follow the brainstorming technique identified by Osborn. The results told them what all of us who ever participated in brainstorming meetings (Which is everyone who ever worked in any sort of organization) already knew for some time now: students individually on their own came up with roughly twice as many solutions compared to the groups who participated in the brainstorming, and on top of that an independent panel of judges deemed the individual member’s solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” In fact, generations of research performed in research lab all over the world in the last 50 years consistently proved that brainstorming doesn’t unleash the creative beast, they just collectively make us a lot less creative than we actually are as individuals.

Brainstorming has a lot of built in issues which deters it from reaching its original goal

  1. “As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” said Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School in an interview with Fast Company magazine. Instead sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to other people’s ideas. This process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality.
  2. As per Loran Nordgren, another professor in Kellogg, in brainstorming early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation”. Since brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called “Conformity pressure”. Participants in desperate need to look intelligent and working against a ticking clock with the moderator shouting out how only 15 minutes are left to come to a consensus, often put the most obvious ideas first and then everyone else rally around that idea to get it done in time.
  3. Research shows that in traditional brainstorming, one or two loud mouths usually do 65-70% of the talking. Therefore, the supposed team work is often the output of a few of the more extroverted, dominant personality in the group
  4. Brainstorming is most often used to answer “Poorly structured questions” (Questions that doesn’t have an obvious answer, needs more creativity to come up with one and doesn’t have a well-defined step by step process to follow to come up with that illusive answer). But actually research shows that Brainstorming is better to find answers to “Well-structured questions” rather than “Poorly structured questions” (i.e. finding name of a new product), as the later requires more creativity and hence better to be tackled alone.

 

As per Paul B. Paulus, psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, “There’s plenty of rain in the storm. That is, plenty of ideas falling from the sky. But there’s not much lightning — the exceptional ideas that have the potential to set things on fire.”

If Brainstorming is indeed not as effective as everyone thinks, why this universal love affair with it?

Because Brainstorming is status quo. Its sexy and fun. It goes in tune with the whole organizational trend of doing everything in teams and collaboration. In short, its another organizational bullshit that is passed on unchallenged. Somehow, human creativity has become a group process. There has been much debate in recent times about the role of individual genius vs a team in creativity & innovation. One school of thought is the lone researcher burning midnight oil to find out a Eureka moment is overstated and practically a myth. Creativity works well when a group is tackling the process together, bouncing ideas of each other in a sort of free-wheeling exercise. The other school of thought preaches “Solitude as the catalyst for innovation”, citing examples of hundred years of creativity generated by individuals working on their own, undisturbed by e-mails, team building, meetings and other pressing group dynamics.

The researchers from Kellogg and Arlington mentioned earlier in this write up came up with a technique called “Brain writing” as an improvement over Brainstorming. In the newly designed “Brain writing” process, people first think on their own and write down their ideas. Then everyone comes together to share those ideas, either verbally sharing them or write them in a wall without attaching their names to it. Then everyone votes on the idea, without getting influenced by who came up with it or how much each idea dominates the discussion; but purely based on the merit of the idea itself in solving the issue in hand. In the subsequent studies, it was found out that this “Brain writing” process generates much more original ideas than the typical “Brainstorming”.

This doesn’t mean that the world is ready to move on from Brainstorming. Unfortunately, until we come to that day when we realize and question the times and resources wasted in such useless “Brainstorming” exercises, thousands of bored, zombie-like brain will continue to storm.

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