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The limits of brainstorming

by on
in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

To spur creativity, you gather your staff for a brainstorming session. You announce, “Let your minds run wild” and “The crazier the idea, the better.” You choose a stimulating off-site setting for the meeting in the hope that the unusual environment will provoke fresh thinking.

There’s just one problem: It won’t work.

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, told The New Yorker.

Most creative breakthroughs occur when “lone wolf” employees work in private. By giving solitary thinkers a chance to grapple with a vexing challenge—without interruption—you increase the odds they will produce real results.

When someone’s work is interrupted, the individual is prone to make 50 percent more mistakes, The New York Times reports. What’s worse, the project will take twice as long to finish. People who are left alone to think tend to seek innovative solutions. They engage in experimentation. As they try and fail on their own, they grow more determined to learn from experience and make adjustments.

Group brainstorming, by contrast, often stifles creativity. That’s because participants lapse into passivity while expecting others to do the work. Or they may piggyback on what others say instead of arriving at their own conclusion.

Overbearing facilitators introduce another obstacle. Eager to engage the group in creativity exercises, they can squelch outside-the-box thinking by following a rigid agenda. They may turn brainstorming into an overly structured waste of time.

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