Brainstorming is a commonly used technique to generate ideas, but according to Dr Kevin Byron it's not as effective as people think.
The most widely used method for groups of people to generate ideas for solving problems or meeting open-ended challenges is brainstorming. A conventional brainstorm is a kind of verbal free-for-all where participants apply thinking by association to come up with ideas to solve a problem or challenge, and the ideas are listed on a flipchart for all to see. In the training room when there are multiple groups the writing is usually carried out by a team member, or in other more formal arrangements with one team, a skilled facilitator may be hired to perform the writing and guide the process.
This technique and the guidelines to apply it were first developed by Alex Osborn in the 30s, and twenty years later this process had found widespread use (often without the guidelines) globally in many organisations big and small. Brainstorming also became an important component of experiential education, continuing professional development and skills training programmes. Nowadays it is seen as a panacea by just about any group of people from large corporations to the local parish council for finding new ideas for the challenges they face.
Interestingly, for almost as long as brainstorming has been popular (some 60 years), research on its effectiveness has repeatedly demonstrated that it is much less productive compared with the pooled output of individuals working on the same challenge independently, and in the absence of inter-group communication (nominal groups). The various factors arising from what are collectively described as ‘group dynamics’ that contribute to this loss of productivity in brainstorms compared with nominal groups are summarised in Fig 1 below.
Fig 1: Idea generation performance of nominal groups compared with brainstorm groups, and the main causes of productivity loss with some remedies.
One of the reasons that brainstorming continues to be popular in spite of these losses is due to a phenomenon known as ‘The Illusion of Productivity’ which is a tacit belief that groups working together would combine their knowledge and creativity in a greater than additive way. In theory this should be the case, but the aforementioned mechanisms that lead to a loss of potential ideas overrides this in practice. The resulting productivity gap is rarely closed in a brainstorm even with the best efforts of a skilled facilitator.
This cognitive illusion, like many others, is notoriously difficult to counter unless the real facts are acknowledged at all levels in the organisation's culture. Two other drivers that sustain brainstorming in organisations are first the top-down practice of good leadership to achieve team cohesion, and second the bottom-up need by all employees to be visibly contributing to progress both for the organisation and their own career development. Irrespective of its poor performance for idea generation brainstorming is unlikely to go away because it serves these other professional needs.
To complicate matters further, brainstorming is often viewed by employees beforehand as an opportunity for a refreshing, social excursion from routine but when the number of people involved exceeds six, it invariably ends up inhibiting creativity rather than stimulating it. Even for smaller groups of four, experimental investigations by the author  of self-reflection by individuals in over thirty such brainstorms showed that almost 70% of attendees experienced diminished creativity, and would have preferred to be doing something else, after only eight minutes of brainstorming. A typical example of these observations is shown in Fig2 below.
Fig2: Self-reflection over time of four people generating ideas in a brainstorm
In spite of these flaws in the brainstorming process, if an organisation is serious about generating quality ideas in a collaborative way there are several ways to remedy the inevitable loss of ideas in brainstorming and some of these are listed on the right hand side of Fig1. One obvious remedy is to simulate the experience of working in a nominal group in the context of the brainstorming group. ‘Brain-writing’ is one of several ways way to do this by having the opportunity of writing rather than vocalising ideas running alongside the conventional brainstorm. In its simplest form this is achieved through the use of post-its, and a more high-tech approach would be to use devices with a low physical profile such as iPads wirelessly communicating with a Google document displayed on a projector screen. This enables cross-table discussion whilst at the same time partly simulating the privacy of a nominal group.
Incubation time in Fig1 refers to longer breaks in the brainstorm to enable immersion in other activities (eg drawing, music, drama etc) in order to nurture insights. This form of arts-based facilitation has grown in popularity in recent years and proven to be very effective in nurturing innovation in large organisations. Other idea generation tools than the default thinking-by-association used in brainstorms also require more time but generally lead to a greater output of quality ideas when the tool is chosen appropriately. Broadly speaking there are three other categories of idea generation and these are ‘transformation’ (eg SCAMPER, TRIZ), ‘matrix methods’ (eg morphological analysis, forced connections) and the use of analogy or metaphor (eg metaphorical mind-maps, analogical brainstorming).
If the time and resources are available the additional recommendations listed below can help groups optimise their creative output whilst still fulfilling the social need to meet in groups:
- Generate ideas as a nominal group before meeting to work together
- Build on the ideas generated by the nominal group when meeting as a brainstorm group
- Encourage paired dialogues from time to time in which the 'suspend judgment' rule of brainstorming is temporarily lifted, and where individual ideas can be debated and revised
- If there are more than six people in the team split the group into smaller units and invite attendees to move from one group to another when they feeling they are no longer contributing
- Have short breaks in the brainstorm meeting to enable the group to re-engage
- Continue to generate ideas after the brainstorm meeting and use social media to update the list of ideas
- Meet again with the sole purpose of selecting the best ideas and use several criteria (cost, practicality, originality etc) to objectively compare the top ideas.
 Byron, K.C.(2012). Creative Reflections on Brainstorming. London Review of Education,
Dr Kevin Byron is a freelance research skills developer working with UK and European universities and research institutes. Before that he spent some 27 years working in commercial engineering research in the telecommunications industry. He has published widely in his specialist field of photonics including over sixty patents, and more recently on research skills, innovation and creativity (eg ‘The Creative Researcher’ booklet available free). He is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and also NESTA.