Does brainstorming actually work?
In a recent post I suggested that certain qualities were perhaps underrated in today’s leadership ideal.
In the post, I included Susan Cain’s argument that the world needs a balance of both introverts and extroverts (extraverts), that without the quieter amongst us, we wouldn’t have Google, the theory of gravity, Harry Potter or the PC. In her book, ‘Quiet’, Susan throws up some interesting perspectives, one of which concerns brainstorming in a creative, group premise, and whether it actually produces quality results, compared with solitary idea-forming.
A study of 38,000 knowledge workers, from a range of sectors, found that being interrupted affects our productivity – it breaks the ‘flow’ of creative thoughts. Open plan offices, often designed to encourage employees to bounce ideas off each other and ‘brainstorm’, in respect of one particular large organisation, were found to be unnecessary and unwanted – workers instead asked for quiet, private space in order to concentrate.
The conception of brainstorming was formed in the 1940s, by Alex Osborn, an advertising guru. Within his corporation he believed workers needed inspiration to produce more ideas, yet he also understood that many were afraid of sharing their thoughts and being judged. His ethos for ‘brainstorming’ involved participants refraining from criticism, enjoying no boundaries in relation to the wildness of their ideas, and encouraging volume. Osborn’s peers, and successors through the decades, got so behind the concept of brainstorming that they fully believed this ‘creative dumping’ to be an essential part of any planning process.
In 1963 a study was carried out regarding the value and quality of the ideas produced in brainstorming sessions. Though results from this first study were open to interpretation, forty years of further scrutiny have shown that although brainstorming produces more ideas than solitary creative thought and working, it doesn’t produce better ideas – and studies have even shown that the larger the group, the poorer the ideas produced.
However, more recent research has offered up a curved ball: that online ‘brainstorming’ has the most effective results of all; and the larger the group, the better the ideas, when work is carried out electronically.
In ‘Quiet’, Susan suggests that introverts still feel today that they’ll be judged in group situations, despite Osborn’s original stipulation. Most remain bystanders in brainstorming sessions as the extroverts jockey for leadership and for their voice to be heard. Research into extroversion, as Susan details, suggests that those who shout loudest don’t actually say very much.
Of course, introversion is not superior to extroversion, or vice versa: the best inventions and developments in our world have been created – and brought to our attention – because of both personality types. However, if brainstorming, as a concept, alienates and discourages quieter participants, leaving the stronger personalities to pool ideas of less merit than if the whole group worked alone or collaborated electronically, it certainly points to the practice being futile – and yet brainstorming is more popular now than it’s ever been, in the early stages of any proposal or process.
In contrast, coaching, on a one-to-one basis, is profoundly different, with exponential success when problems arise, compared to the individual self-diagnosing and working through the issue at hand in a solitary manner. Teasing out the right detail and approaching each unique problem in the most effective way should, quite rightly, only be offered by qualified, experienced practitioners.
What are your thoughts on brainstorming, and do you agree with Susan Cain? Does your personality type have much bearing on your creativity – and if so, how? I’d love to hear your views.
And, as always, if you’d like to know more about my executive or leadership coaching services, contact me on 01302 220221.