"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

There was an interesting short article in today’s (11/6) Washington Post by Jena McGregor on the failure of brainstorming:


The author concludes, based on recent behavioral research that office brainstorming sessions where a group of workers are gathered to share ideas about a particular issue or problem, do not work; whereas when individuals are given the task of thinking about the issue or problem and asked to come to a meeting prepared to present their ideas, more innovative solutions result.

I hated brainstorming.  I felt it was a colossal waste of time, subject to group dynamics which favored the more outspoken, were often dominated by the boss who had her/his own predetermined conclusions, and were time-wasteful with the lengthy presentation of ill-conceived or at least ill-prepared ideas.

I have always favored individual enterprise – the individual, reflective, thoughtful, and ordered development of an idea; the justification for it; and the logical presentation of it.  Brainstorming sessions are just the opposite, for they are the venues for poorly-formed or –thought-out ideas.  I think that workers like brainstorming sessions because they are easier than the more disciplined and rigorous thought process that is required to develop an idea.

It is a short article, so I will quote it in its entirety and provide some of my own comments in italics within the text.

We’ve all been there. The boardrooms with flip charts at the front of the room and candy on the table. The all-hands emergency meetings to come up with ideas to fix the latest mess. And of course, the off-sites in drab hotel ballrooms that are supposed to somehow spark creativity.

The term ‘emergency meetings” is particularly telling.  Such brainstorming sessions have been called because the boss has not done her/his job by either thinking about the issue or by carefully selecting staff to address it.  The result is a last minute affair, pulling people (and their minds) away from other important tasks, often at poorly-chosen times (e.g. late in the day).  In other words, these sessions are really thought necessary because proper reflection and consideration about an issue has not been done.

Such efforts at brainstorming are well intended, of course. The problem? They rarely work. While leaders hang onto the idea that bringing together a big group of people will produce truly innovative ideas, it’s rare that actually happens.

Evidence has long shown that getting a group of people to think individually about solutions, and then combining their ideas, can be more productive than getting them to think as a group. Some people are afraid of introducing radical ideas in front of a group and don’t speak up; in other cases, the group is either too small or too big to be effective.

Not only that, in a desire to assure ‘inclusivity’ – i.e. including everyone possible so as not to offend anyone – the wrong people are at the brainstorming session; or, just as bad, the right people are forced to listen to irrelevant ideas from those who do not belong, but who feel that because they were invited they have to contribute.

But according to a recently published study, the real problem might be that participants’ get stuck on each others’ ideas. On Monday, the British Psychological Society highlighted a recent study by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith, two researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University. They asked undergraduate students to contribute ideas for improving Texas A&M, both individually and in collective groups. They shared the ideas on a computer, either in small chat groups or alone, but combined together after the fact. As expected, the “nominal” groups, or those made up of individual ideas that were later pulled together, outperformed the real chat groups, both with the number of ideas and the diversity of them.

As above, this has been my experience and I intuitively knew that hastily-organized brainstorming sessions, without any structure, discipline, or order; and made up of the wrong people would always produce fewer results and many fewer innovative ideas than the right people working on the problem individually.

The ‘right people’ is key to any innovation.  While there is not doubt that random ideas (i.e. ideas generated by workers in jobs peripheral to the issue) may turn out to be worthwhile, they are too rare to be of value. It is worth risking losing the odd random good idea to ensure that the best people are working on the issue.  

There is, at least in American offices (and in the educational system from which workers come – see my blog posts on Reforming Education), a misguided belief in the ‘participatory process’, one which puts a very high premium on inclusiveness, equality of expression, and democratic selection.  The means are as important as the ends in these offices; but by insisting on this balance, the goals of the organization, department, or division, are compromised.  There is nothing wrong with – in fact everything right with – the boss coming up with a tentative conclusion, sharing it with colleagues for comment (written preferably because of the more rigorous discipline required to develop an idea), taking the best ideas, if any, and changing the hypothesis.

Kohn and Smith believed the cause might be because of “cognitive fixation,” or the concept that, when exposed to group members’ ideas, people focused on those and blocked other types of ideas from taking hold. They experimented with this by manipulating the number of ideas participants saw in their chat windows, with some getting a few cues and others getting more. Their hypothesis was right: When exposed to many cues, the undergrads offered up less creative, diverse ideas. The numbers improved when the students were given a five-minute break during the exercise.

As above, this tendency is exacerbated by common group dynamics – only some people speak up in group discussions, and when they do it is often too little and too late. Not only do others’ ideas dominate, but equally good ideas never get aired because of timidity.

As with all such studies, there’s plenty of pretty obvious common sense to this research. But it’s a helpful reminder of how unhelpful it can be when managers dump people in a room together, thinking it will result in creative big ideas. Somehow, a belief in the power of group brainstorming sessions persists, despite evidence that it doesn’t work. Great minds can come up with their own ideas, but sometimes the problem is they think too much alike

As above, it will be just as hard to jettison these ‘participatory’ office techniques as it will be to get rid of participatory or ‘collaborative’ primary education where the ideas of the talented are lost in the larger sea of lesser talents.

In conclusion, get rid of brainstorming.  Even without the behavioral evidence, it is obvious to anyone who has sat through these painful sessions, they rarely if ever produce valuable and useable results.

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