Does Brainstorming Work?

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New, innovative and constructive ideas are important for the success of every organisation and among the numerous exercises for generating ideas is, most notably, brainstorming.

 

Typically, brainstorming is a facilitated group exercise that focuses on coming up with ideas, selecting what are perceived to be the best of those ideas and then developing the ideas into a concept, campaign, event or product.

 

In bringing together a diverse group of people with a variety of experiences and a common goal, brainstorming might seem like a productive operation. However, evidence of its success in producing quality ideas suggests otherwise, because what is required from brainstorming is at odds with many of the dynamics that govern the behaviour of a group.

 

Bringing a group together (regardless of its intention) is far more likely to encourage, first and foremostly, group behaviours. These include conformity, social loafing and competition—conditions that have the potential to promote paranoia, shyness and a fear of being evaluated—rather than the relaxed informal environment necessary for encouraging creativity and innovative thinking.

 

Consensus becomes the favoured outcome and the larger the group, the greater is its propensity for groupthink.

Constrain!

Brainstorming can be productive where the exercise or desired outcomes—rather than expectations—are, in effect, constrained i.e.

 

  • where goals are few and very clear, where groups are smaller and more intimate, where individuals are more comfortable with each other and are not striving for consensus
  • where ideas that have already been chosen for development through a different creative process (possibly in a series of one-to-one scenarios) are to be explored in a specific, expert or technical way
  • where tactics for manufacturing dissent (such as playing devil’s advocate) are employed by the facilitator to break groupthink in a case of where key decisions are to be made
  • where people who may have been inspired during a session but are unwilling to share their thoughts can be de-briefed post hoc by a facilitator
  • where the session is treated primarily as a motivational exercise, so that any innovative ideas that emerge are a bonus

Tapping the rich resources and capabilities of the individuals in an organisation is crucial for motivating and getting the most from people as well as for the success of a smart organisation. An organisational structure with clearly open lines of communication that encourages people to express themselves and incorporates a means for seeking out, encouraging and acting on feedback goes a long way towards achieving this.

 

The brainstorming session, if well facilitated, is a valuable vehicle for bringing people together in a way that benefits the organisation. A natural tendency towards groupthink may limit its value as a primary source of new and creative ideas but it can be an effective medium for developing them and for generating consensus.