Does group brainstorming really result in better ideas?

I recently read a post by Mikael Cho, founder of digital virtual agency Ooomf, questioning the traditional views of collaborative creative development — otherwise known as “brainstorming.”

Mikael writes:

From my experience working at an agency, as a designer, and at ooomf, coming up with ideas from a single brainstorming session like this one is usually not the most effective way. Many people I’ve come across, including the most creative ones, need individual time to let ideas marinate before the best concept reveals itself.

This might sound like blasphemy to people who have grown up with the idea that two (or three, or ten) heads are better than one, and that there is no such thing as a “bad idea.”

But why do we assume this way is the best? Mikael takes it back to the golden age of advertising, and an adman named Alex Osborn:

In 1953, Osborn published a book titled Applied Imagination, where he discussed how group brainstorming is a more efficient way to improve ideation compared to individual thought.

To have an effective brainstorming session, Osborn outlined that the group must:

Defer judgment (don’t get upset when people say bad ideas)
Reach for quantity (come up with as many ideas as possible)

However, Mikael states that this simple philosophy is difficult to make work because of human dynamics. He cites three great idea killers: Fear of judgement, domination by extroverts, and the natural conservatism of group thinking.

I have to say I agree. I’ve been working in agencies since 1995. For five years prior, I was on my own. And while “Art and Copy” collaboration can be a crucible for great ideas, many times I have found team brainstorming in even mid-sized groups to be ineffective.

Here’s the difference: Great creative collaboration is a trusting and intimate act. It works best when done by two people in private. Really well-matched creative teams share inspiration without reservation, and they are able to build on each other’s ideas without trying to take control of them.

This, my friends, is a rare and precious thing. But even the greatest creative partnerships benefit from ideas that each member brings to the table after having some alone time to daydream. Original and exciting ideas come as much from unconscious processes as from conscious ones, and it’s hard to reach that nebulous place of conceptual lightning strikes when you’re having to deal with other people.

This need for quiet reflection and peace-of-mind is what many people who suggest “brainstorming” on a creative solution do not understand. They are the ones who issue an open invitation to as many people as possible, thinking that they will be able to find gold among the 100 ideas thrown on the table.

The problem is, most — if not all — of those ideas will fall short. Not because the people offering them up are uncreative or unskilled, but because the dynamics of the group prevent their minds from going to the place where the great ideas live. Two people, maybe three, can share insights and half-baked ideas effectively if they’re compatible. More voices than that, and people are no longer really communicating. “They’re not so much listening,” in the words of a cliché I like, “as waiting for their turn to speak.” In this competitive environment, the more aggressive ones tend to think fast, grab the first idea they have, rationalize it, and present it confidently with the hope of being the “winner.”

How many really mind-blowing ideas get passed over, in these situations, because the people in the sessions did not have the time, the support, or the peace of mind to let their less fully-formed thoughts develop into something really special?

Perhaps I sound idealistic here, but if I haven’t scared off the Professional Development “listicle” crowd, I can end by offering some simple advice to anyone charged with thinking creatively — whether you’re a Capital C Creative or not:

1) Do your research

You can’t have great ideas in a vacuum. Do your homework, and get excited about the problem. Find out how others have solved similar problems (which can also help you prevent accidental “copying” of things already done). And make sure you know the objectives and audience as well as any method actor studies his or her character.

2) Go for a walk

Or go for a coffee by yourself. Or find a quiet place and stare out the window. Let your mind relax and wander over the challenge.

3) Arrive with a list

Write down all of your thoughts — even the incomplete ones. Bring this with you to the session.

4) Keep it small

More people are less efficient at creative problem-solving than two or three. If you’re stuck with a big group, break it up into small teams, and tell each one to go off on their own to work (out of the office, if practical).

5) Don’t try to do it all at once

In my experience, it’s best to have a series of short and enjoyable collaborative sessions with breaks in between, rather than locking yourself together for the day. I especially like the approach of sharing for an hour or less, then leaving the next session for the next day. This allows you to recharge your brain with other people’s reactions and input, which you can let bounce around in the back of your mind when you’re once again on your own.

6) Share ownership

When you finally get to the stage of committing to the ideas that your team will present, remind yourself (and each other) that everyone has to stand behind what you are going to put forward. This is why larger groups never produce great ideas, because the search for consensus requires too much diplomacy and compromise. On the other hand, a well-matched small team will put the egos aside and be excited to share in the development of other people’s ideas as if they were their own.


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[Image via Wikimedia Commons]


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