The Brainstorming Myth

The Brainstorming Myth

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“Introverts Unite! Separately. In your own homes.” – T-shirt

In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain argues with passion (and data) that we dramatically undervalue introverts. You know, the 30% or so of us quieter, more introspective thinkers whose ideas often get trample by louder, “stronger” voices. And this is a problem, she says, because studies show close to zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas

So, as facilitators in a group setting, how can we make sure we’re letting introverts “hear themselves think” while creating space for their great ideas to find the light of day? A good place to start is by dispelling the myth of classic brainstorming.

First introduced by an advertising executive named Alex Osborn in the late 1940s, brainstorming is still alive and well. We all know the rules. It’s quantity over quality. Let’s get as many ideas on the table as quickly as possible. No pauses to judge or critique. It’s a best practice that just works, right?

It turns out, not so much.

A Yale University study in 1958 divided 48 students into 12 groups and gave each a series of creative puzzles to solve following Osborne’s brainstorming rules. Then, a control group of 48 other students were given the same puzzles and asked to solve them working alone with no rules. Collectively, the solo students came up with 80% more unique solutions than their brainstorming counterparts. What’s more, a panel of judges identified the solo group’s ideas to be more feasible and effective.

And that was just the beginning. Numerous studies since then have repeatedly debunked classic brainstorming, pointing to 4 main reasons the technique falls short:

  • Social Loafing: When ideas are flowing from others in the group, people tend to kick back and offer fewer ideas of their own.
  • Intimidation: Even though the “no critique” rule is explicitly stated, people still withhold ideas for fear of being judged.
  • Production Blocking: While listening to others share their ideas, we literally can’t hear ourselves think.
  • Topic Fixation: The group’s flow of ideas tends to remain adjacent to the first few ideas generated, thanks to the power of suggestion.

A better approach, the studies suggest, is one in which we pool ideas across a group of people who begin by generating ideas alone. And because this “nominal group” technique begins with solo flights of thought, it mitigates all four downsides of classic brainstorming.

Not to mention, it’s an introvert’s dream.

So, next time you’re tempted to open the floodgates of discussion in a classic brainstorm, consider this recipe instead.

  • Give your well-formed question to participants ahead of time, so they can think about it before the meeting.
  • In the meeting give folks 5 to 10 minutes to think about and quietly write down their 4 or 5 best ideas, each on a separate Post-it™ note
  • Collect and then place the Post-it’s™ on a white board or flipchart palette visible to all.
  • Have the group help you identify and consolidate duplicate ideas.
  • Entertain additional ideas from the large group, which may be triggered by those generated in step 2.
  • Allow the group to critique (good and bad) any of the ideas.
  • Converge on the “best” ideas through a converging process like dot voting.

By ideating this way, you’ll side-step the drawbacks of traditional brainstorming, give extroverts ample time to think out loud, and provide introverts a slice of solitude that is so critical to their creative process.