Learned a few brainstorming techniques over the weekend and want to implement them at work?

Maybe you should think again.

Imagine it’s Monday morning and before you can make it to your desk you are bombarded by incoming texts, peers and employees alike. All asking you the same question?

“Did you see our competitor’s new marketing campaign?”

Of course, you make it a habit to read business publications each morning and have Google alerts setup to track your top 5 competitors moves. So you are fully aware of their new campaign.  And frankly, you’ve been freaking out about it since you read the article earlier this morning.

You decide to get the team together first thing to brainstorm new marketing campaigns.

Bad idea!

Research shows that brainstorming as a team generates fewer and lower quality ideas than the same number of people working alone!

Dr. Adrian Furnham is a researcher and professor for the London Business School. In particular he cited 3 processes which diminish the results of group brainstorming:

1. Social Loafing: Being in a group enables individuals to make less effort

2. Evaluation comprehension: Fear of one’s ideas seeming foolish

3. Production blocking: Because only one person can speak at a given time, other teammates are prevented from airing their ideas when they occur (and often forget them)

Dr. Furnham’s research is in direct opposition to Alex Osborn, the New York advertising executive who is credited with originating the business use of group brainstorming. According to Mr. Osborn, the average person can come up with twice as many ideas when brainstorming in a group as opposed to being alone.

Unfortunately, Mr. Osborn was wrong.

Brainstorming Is Great For Individuals

Since the 1950’s, research has proven brainstorming is an individual sport. Researchers Bouchard and Hare found that individuals produced more and better ideas even when facing off against a brainstorming group of up to 9 people. When you consider the optimal team size is somewhere between 5- 9 you start to realize the fallacy of brainstorming’s effectiveness.

Author Baratunde Thurston points to other social issues at play when you assemble a team for a brainstorming session.  Authority figures can stymy ideas since they have the power and teams believe their opinions or ideas won’t be executed over those of the boss. The same can be true of “star” performers or extroverts who speak out; causing other team members to shy away from offering ideas and inciting “awkward staring” as Thurston put it.

I’ve personally experienced these social issues.  I would often have my team meet in a conference room so we could hash out ideas to a problem.  Most people did not participate and those who did often bogarted the entire conversation. Still, I have run some (seemingly) successful group brainstorming sessions. Even Furnham’s research shows that group brainstorming is not always bad. Group brainstorming often fills our human desire to work in groups. It also allows for a pooling of resources and helps to increase the acceptance of whatever decision is made. This comes in handy when making a plan to execute an idea.

What To Do Instead

Next time you want to quickly generate quality ideas, try one of these tactics:

  • Have team members brainstorm alone and write down their ideas. Ask for a certain number of ideas from each person and then meet again later as a group to discuss them all.
  • Divide and conquer: break down the problem into parts and have team members work on sections separately
  • Try alternative brainstorming techniques, such as brainswarming

If group brainstorming is a must, invite team members to critique ideas openly. You’d be surprised, but according to Furnham’s research light dissent can actually spark engagement and a higher percentage of good ideas.