The Problem with Brainstorming

Why Brainstorming is Counterproductive

Nuvro Project Management Blog

Many businesses rely on brainstorming to stress test or come up with new ideas. However, the effectiveness of the process has increasingly become subject to question. Concerns about the tendency of brainstorming to be hampered by groupthink, unproductive processes, and peer pressure has led some to proclaim that engaging in the practice may be more trouble than it’s worth. Whether or not this is the case, it is worth looking into some of the problems said to be associated with brainstorming. These problems include the following:

Group Ideation Doesn’t Necessarily Boost Creativity

Group Brainstorming

Brainstorming sounds great in theory, but in reality, it is not always a boon to the creative process. Coming up with good ideas often requires inspiration, cutting edge ideas, and out of the box thinking. In a group context, people may not feel comfortable sharing these types of ideas for fear of encountering resistance from other group members. When team members are given a chance to ideate alone, on the other hand, the influence of peer pressure on the process is minimized, offering opportunities for greater creativity.

Another benefit of solo ideation is that it generally allows a person to seek out a better environment to come up with ideas. A quiet area is likely to be more conducive to generating good ideas than a room where a bunch of people are speaking. In many cases, it may be more productive to allow people to do their brainstorming on their own, and then meet to discuss those results in a group context afterwards.

People Tend to not Want to Criticize Others’ Ideas

Another challenge associated with brainstorming sessions is that often people, especially in business settings, are reluctant to offend others. While this is certainly helpful when it comes to keeping interactions at work civil, it can be counterproductive if it prevents session attendees from freely speaking their minds about others’ ideas. This type of dynamic is especially likely to occur when brainstorming session members occupy various levels of the corporate hierarchy. Subordinates may not feel comfortable criticizing the ideas of their superiors, even when they don’t find them to be worthwhile.

This phenomenon is likely to be less of a factor when people don’t know where a particular idea or proposal originated. In such cases, they are more likely to freely critique the ideas presented at a brainstorming session. This is another argument for having session attendees take the time to ideate prior to attending the meeting. This allows their idea submissions to be collected and anonymized before the meeting begins.

Less Effort is Made Individually Than Would Otherwise be the Case

When group effort is involved, people can exhibit a behavior known as “social loafing,” whereby they rely on others to exert the preponderance of the effort in a group setting. If such a dynamic prevails, it results in less input than might be gained from having people come up with ideas on their own. It can also result in adverse selection, where the ideas given most consideration at the session are generated according to an individual’s predisposition to contribute, rather than to their ability to come up with high-quality ideas.

One method to push back against this type of behavior works as follows:

  • Go around the room and call on everyone in attendance to present their ideas.
  • This approach ensures that those asked to brainstorm won’t be able to ride on the coattails of others, as their lack of participation won’t be cloaked by the cover of a group session.
  • This doesn’t solve all the problems of social loafing, as attendees prone to this behavior can still punch below their weight by doing the minimum possible, and declining to offer comments of their own on others’ ideas. Nevertheless, it does at least serve the purpose of making sure all attendees contribute something to the brainstorming session so you could consider this as a plus for your team’s productivity.
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All Group Members Aren’t Always Afforded Opportunities to Take Part

As discussed above, social loafing can result in only some of a brainstorming session’s attendees contributing ideas. This can also be the case when less senior members are reluctant to offer their opinions for fear of offending their superiors. Even when everyone attending a session is roughly equal in rank, there is a risk that one or two strong personalities will dominate the proceedings. In such cases, as alluded to above, the people doing most of the speaking may not have the best ideas, but others may be too intimidated to offer their own better ideas. Giving all participants a chance to speak is one method that can be used to make sure everybody present at a session gets a chance to speak, this is a great way to improve team collaboration further.

Ideas Presented Early Tend to Receive Disproportionate Consideration

While giving everyone present at a brainstorming a chance to speak can avoid issues with one or a few attendees dominating a brainstorming session, the issue of prioritization can arise when this approach is pursued. Prioritization in this context occurs when the ideas that are placed on the whiteboard first are treated with greater weight than they deserve by virtue of being up on the board longer than ideas presented later. To the extent that the best ideas take longer to come up with, this phenomenon works against their adoption.

Groupthink can Lead to Mediocre Rather Than Exceptional Ideas

The phenomenon of groupthink, in which people conform their thinking to ideas they feel are socially acceptable, can be counterproductive when extended to the ideation process. Brainstorming sessions are generally designed to come up with new ideas or new ways of thinking, which is not usually facilitated by groupthink.

Ideas that are truly innovative are seldom a result of commonly accepted wisdom. They typically are thought up by individuals who are able to think outside of the box and produce insights that were not previously known. To the extent that brainstorming retards this process, it is more likely to lead to mediocre ideas than exceptional ones.

Some Steps to Improve the Brainstorming Process

The above should not be construed as saying that brainstorming sessions are entirely worthless – just that relying on them as the primary method of generating ideas is suboptimal. To improve your brainstorming results, try the following:

  • Allow group members the chance to come up with ideas on their own
  • Provide a predetermined process that helps participants focus
  • Give everyone the chance to Contribute

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