What’s Wrong with Group Brainstorming? A Lot. Here’s a Better Alternative.

Sep 15, 2021

Group brainstorming sessions are largely a waste of everyone’s time.

Before I’m burned at the stake for corporate heresy, consider that this seemingly controversial statement isn’t just coming from me. Google “Why brainstorming doesn’t work” and you’ll surface a plethora of articles from leading publications like Harvard Business Review, Inc., Fast Company, The Washington Post and The Guardian.

In the abstract, brainstorming sessions seem to make a lot of sense: Harness the collective brain power of a bunch of smart people with differing viewpoints, encourage the free-and-easy flow of ideas by focusing more on quantity than quality, avoid criticism, embrace wild ideas, then sit back and let the magic happen.

Alas, I’ve found that in my years of corporate experience – and more importantly, numerous studies have shown – that group brainstorming sessions rarely yield innovative solutions. Instead, they are likely to produce a group of mediocre, half-baked ideas that result from participants understandably grasping for the lowest-hanging fruit.

Group brainstorming: The zombie idea that won’t die
So what’s so bad about group brainstorming? In short, it produces fewer ideas and worse ideas compared to individual brainstorming. A meta-analytic review of over 800 teams found that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

“After six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently,” according to Harvard Business Review. “In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.”

There are a number of theories about why group brainstorming seems to stifle, rather than promote creativity. First, humans simply have a bias toward agreement and conformity, leading them to challenge marginal ideas less than they should. Next is the concept of “production blocking,” a process loss caused by the need to take turns speaking in group sessions. When only one member is allowed to speak at a time, it may cause other team members to forget earlier ideas shared or prevent them from sharing their immediate thoughts.

Additionally, there are the obvious problems that may occur when large groups of people gather for any problem-solving discussion: group think, social anxiety, loafing and regression to the mean.

Yet despite the accumulation of decades of evidence about its ineffectiveness, group brainstorming sessions remain an institution in much of Corporate America. Why? Essentially, it just “feels” right. On its face, group brainstorming is a democratic way of reaching consensus on the next idea a company should pursue, even if it’s not a particularly great idea. Ultimately, it’s this intuitive (but wrong) feeling that group brainstorming is the best approach to idea generation that explains its persistent survival in the face of widespread evidence to the contrary.

Brainwriting to the rescue
There is a better approach to developing new ideas: Keep the “idea generation” and “discussion” functions separate. In other words, write first, talk second.

In the technique known as “brainwriting,” team members first do their own thinking to develop and write down their ideas. Then, gather the team together and post the ideas (without the names of those who developed them) on a whiteboard. Only then can the discussion begin.

Certainly, discussion of ideas is still worthwhile, but importantly, it should not happen until the group has already created several distinct ideas to debate. “Raw” ideas rarely work; instead, “it’s the permutation and combination of the outlandish and banal that lead to the best proposals,” according to Fast Company.

Amen. We have the power to free Corporate America from the inefficiency, unproductivity and stifled creativity of the dreaded group brainstorm session. All we need to remember to do is write now and talk later.

Brandon Glenn

Brandon Glenn is a veteran journalist and marketing and communications professional, with experience in content marketing, social media, media relations and news writing. He gained a deep knowledge of the health IT industry while working as a reporter and editor for MedCity News, which covers the business of innovation in healthcare, and as a senior editor with Medical Economics, a publication that focuses on issues of importance to primary care physicians. In these positions, he also wrote extensively about the hospitals, pharmaceuticals and medical devices industries. Brandon began his journalism career as a reporter with Crain's Cleveland Business and, later, Crain's Chicago Business. Earlier, he was an analyst with consulting firm Accenture. Brandon earned a master's in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Purdue University.