Brainstorming is a creative technique through which group members form solutions to specific problems by spontaneously shouting out ideas, without censoring themselves or criticizing others. The term was popularized by marketing expert Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination.
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and performance worsens as group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which function worse than groups of four.
The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
The one exception is online brainstorming. When properly managed, groups that brainstorm online perform better than individuals—and the larger the group, the better it performs. The same holds true for academic research: Professors who collaborate electronically tend to produce more influential research.
What we fail to realize is that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude unto itself. Nevertheless, brainstorming continues to be a popular method within organizations.
Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe their group performed much better than it actually did. Brainstorming makes people feel attached, but social glue is far different from genuine creativity.
Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming:
- Social loafing. Some individuals sit back and let others do all the work.
- Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at a time, so the others are forced to sit passively.
- Evaluation apprehension. Even when group members agree to welcome all ideas, people fear they’ll look stupid in front of their peers.