Brainstorming didn’t kill creativity. Not always


Groups kill creativity. That’s the prevailing wisdom.

The thinking is that when it comes to being creative the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Stick people in groups and creativity turns into group think, politics, posturing, self-consciousness, noise, absence of contemplation and whoops – everything gets sucked toward the safe and average.

Which is why individuals have more ideas per head than groups do.

Brainstorming is thus a waste of time.

Except it’s not.

And to say that goes against the grain. Because sending “brainstorm sessions” to the dustbin of corporate life seems on the face of it a smart and popular move. After all most meetings would go into the shredder if their real purpose was to achieve whatever was jammed onto the agenda.

But just before the lethal injection is administered a reprieve arrives! It turns out that groups actually produce better ideas than individuals. What I mean by better isn’t that the ideas of groups are more creative. Or of higher moral value. But they tend to be more robust, more practical, more useful and therefore more valuable (economically).

If true then it’s something of significance for business – who engage in creativity for practical reasons – more than it is useful for artists who might be engaged in creativity for its own sake.

In a recent study* researchers found that individuals faced with the same challenge as groups produced more fresh ideas than the groups.The challenge, incidentally, was for 100+ students to dream up ideas to improve their university.

A second critical phase to the experiment required participants to combine ideas to create new and useful concepts. And at first blush the results were not a surprise. Individuals created more “combined-concepts” than groups did.

So on both counts the individuals were more “creative” than the groups. So far, so predictable.

But unlike previous experiments the quality of the ideas produced were evaluated by a panel of independent judges. Now, doing this is a twist. Until now the experiments in the field of idea generation had focused on measuring the quantity of ideas produced. But here, the ideas produced by the groups were rated as more useful. In other words when measured by quality of ideas rather than quantity of ideas, the brainstorming session may have life in it. It could even be back in vogue.

Then again let’s not be naive; Ask yourself how often brainstorming is the real purpose of brainstorming. Often enough the real purpose is to show that everyone’s opinions matter or to demonstrate that there is no easy solution to a given problem, to filter ideas through a company, build culture, teach/demonstrate a way of thinking, getting commitment (from staff, directors, clients and other attendees), or generate income for a consultancy.

There are in other words plenty of good reasons to brainstorm other than needing to have a brainstorm. But now we can include brainstorming – in certain conditions – to the valid reasons for having a brainstorming meeting. Clear?


Thanks to Jon Marsh for the doodle

*Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process by NIcholas W. John;  Paul B. Paulus; YunHee Choi – Unversity of Texas at Arlington