Group Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Be Creative on Your Own

This is very true. More and more I’ve told peoeple, "Let’s both hang up, think about it for 30 minutes, and talk again with our ideas." Much more effective than trying to "bounce ideas off each other."

Link: BPS Research Digest: Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?.

So you need some fresh, innovative ideas. What do you do? Get a group of your best thinkers together to bounce ideas of each other…? No, wrong answer. Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity”. But why does this illusion persist?

Bernard Nijstad and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam argue it’s because when we’re in a group, other people are talking, the pressure isn’t always on us and so we’re less aware of all the times that we fail to think of a new idea. By contrast, when we’re working alone and we can’t think of anything, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re failing.

8 comments on “Group Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Be Creative on Your Own
  • I have always thought this, but feared I was alone. I can never really hear myself think in brainstorming sessions. Also, I find that there’s usually one loud mouth wanna-be leader type who talks over or dismisses the ideas of the less assertive in the group.

  • I don’t fully buy it. Brainstorming typicall fails if you fail to completely liberate the participants… i.e. if they censor their own ideas for fear of looking stupid.
    I agree though that producing tangible results in a group does not work. But that is not brainstorming.

  • Brainstorming on your own is a critical first step, but for refining one’s ideas, having at least one other collaborator is critical.

    The wisdom of crowds isn’t a myth; group decision-making is often superior. But your right that unless it’s done right, group brainstorming often falls short of the mark.

  • This is not true. First of all, there should be facilitator who will encourage ideas sharing among group members. If facilitator failed to fulfil his role then all work will probably fail as well. Intensive exchange of views prevents members from passing over in silence some ideas. these new ideas change train of thought of other members. this, in turn, give birth to new ideas etc. etc. This approach increases chances of making appropriate decision. It works in practice.

  • I will back that up from a little different point of view.

    When I think alone, I come up with much more unique ideas.

    When I come into a group without preconcieved ideas I’m usually only a standard deviation from what everyone else is saying.

    Sometime’s it’s useful to chime in with “Hey yeah, that’d be really good if we added x” but usually that’s not what you want in a brainstorm, you want that to refine the idea.

    I find this to be what works best for me…

    Brainstorm and think alone about it first – come up with 5-10 (or 3 or 20 w/e) good ideas to pitch to the others. Then everyone pitches and can improv off everyone elses ideas.

  • I believe the study is flawed. They were asking a sample set of students to perform a task most of them weren’t capable or trained to effectively tackle. It’s like asking a high school football team to run the Colt’s offense within a week, and expect great execution for their Friday night game.

    Brainstorming is a tool, so it depends on the structure (i.e. who’s moderating), chemistry (i.e. strength of team, comfort level within the group), individuals involved, and probably a few other factors I’m missing.

    If each person is committed to the process to effectively brainstorm for 20-30 minutes on a topic (I believe periods of 30 minutes or longer have proven to show decline in creative output), results can be productive.

    There are studies and even simulation games that have proven groups consistently outthink and perform an individual’s effort.

    I agree with some of the previous comments that one good method is to individually brainstorm and then come together in a group. Jumping off other people’s ideas to create a whole new idea is what I typically experience.

    The brainstorming process to generate ideas is like the editing process for me. It’s a tool that I use to either generate new ideas and get out of a deadend, or just to refine my existing idea. Also I prefer to work with certain editors that I click well with, and there are a handful of people I would brainstorm with if given the choice.

  • Bernard: Good to hear from you, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. You outline some good qualifications; indeed, I don’t think ALL group brainstorming is hogwash. Just most of the time.

    I agree when you say, “There are studies and even simulation games that have proven groups consistently outthink and perform an individual’s effort” but I see “outthinking and performing” as different than creativity. If a problem needed sheer brainpower and brawn, I would always go with a group. If it was a knotty problem that needed a creative solution, I would do individual brainstorming sessions and then come back as a group and then split up again as individuals, etc.

  • Let’s not equate brainstorming to groupwork in general.  Brainstorming is all about initial, unrestricted idea generation, and as such, your ideas can trigger new ones in me, so we may boost each others productivity.

    In the follow-up steps the closer we get to the “end-product” the more I agree with Ben that individual work followed by group review is better. (Don’t ever try to write a report/specification ..etc in a group).

    Ben, thanks for forwarding the comment update; now that we have coComment, we can get the updates in our RSS feed 🙂

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