Do you ever get that sinking feeling when someone says, “Should we do a brainstorming session?”
You’re not alone. Many researchers were suspicious of Alex Osborn’s original outline of brainstorming when it first caught the public imagination in the 1950s.
To be fair, many of the critical studies of brainstorming look at group work in general—and at some pretty sloppy examples of it. But it’s amazing how often they find that a group of people generate fewer ideas when working together than when they work separately. These studies also catalog horrors such as:
- The evaluation apprehension effect (fear of exposure to the group)
- The social loafing effect (freeloading off the work of the rest of the group)
- The sucker effect (lowering your effort so you don’t get take advantage of by the loafers)
- The matching effect (also known as groupthink)
You’ve probably seen all these in action. With a deadline looming, a manager gathers everyone around a whiteboard. There is some anticipation about cracking open the problem and doing some real innovating. The session leader reassures everyone that no idea is a bad idea.
And then when the floor is opened, somehow, one person—the loudest person—takes over the meeting. No idea is a bad idea, right? Meanwhile, everyone else gets more quiet, and less and less comfortable speaking their minds. When the leader finally calls time, everybody gets up and leaves, hanging their heads like sad puppies.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong—brainstorming does pay off sometimes. And we can’t all just go back to our desks and hope we never get called into a group session again. Working in groups is how business gets done in today’s economy, and cross-functional teams are too valuable a source of innovation to give up.
But I think a lot of us have a relationship with brainstorming that has run its course, and it’s time to break up and start using other ideation techniques. We need approaches to innovation that taps into the value a team can bring—and that means taking a human approach, not bureaucratic.