Machine Design

Brainstorming or just hot air?

It has probably happened to most of us. We walk out of a team brainstorming session designed to bubble ideas to the surface.

But once the meeting afterglow has dissipated and we examine the results in the harsh light of a new day, they don't seem particularly insightful.

If you find brainstorming to be less than superproductive, you probably aren't imagining things. Though team brainstorming is a sacred cow among management beliefs, research psychologists are finding out that individuals thinking independently are more effective at generating ideas than the same people thrown together in meetings.

The irony is that for many participants, such group activities seem worthwhile even if the results aren't great. Researchers who study creativity claim that's because brainstorming gives the illusion of getting things done. Investigators at the University of Amsterdam, for example, found that control groups felt good about brainstorming even though the same people produced more ideas working alone. The psychologists conducting the work think they know what was going on: It's easy to convince yourself you've contributed to a group effort even when your actual impact has been miniscule. In contrast, you can't hide the fact your mind is a blank when you are asked to generate ideas on your own.

Still, people believe they come up with ideas in a group that they would not have thought of otherwise. Researchers poohpooh this notion and say it is probably not true. Group dynamics tend to prevent big insights from coming out of meetings. One problem: People in groups don't have the same motivation to generate ideas as someone working alone, so they may be less focused on the events at hand and more easily distracted.

Group members, too, tend to withhold critical information for various reasons. And the fact that people take turns speaking in brainstorming sessions is problematic as well, psychologists claim. Ideas tend to evaporate in the interim or go unvoiced if their creator has trouble getting a word in edgewise.

Then there are workplace realities that can make these sessions pointless. That's because often, brainstorming groups aren't really assembled to generate ideas; participants are there for appearances. The real agenda is to get a buy-in for decisions that have already been made by upper management.

Even when such sessions happen for legitimate reasons, it can take someone with the equivalent of a Ph.D. in group facilitation to keep them on track. Otherwise there is a real danger of the event degrading into a bull session. One technique that shows promise in controlled studies is to first brainstorm together briefly, then separate for some private hard thinking.

Or you could just forget the whole exercise and go back to your cube. Remember, there is no record of Einstein or Thomas Edison getting big ideas from formal brainstorming sessions. Teams may be great for getting things done once you have a grand insight and a plan. They are far less useful when you don't have a clue and need one.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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