Brainstorming Is Dumb

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Studies show it produces fewer good ideas than when people think on their own. Thankfully, there’s a better way to work in groups.

If you work in an office, your boss has probably forced you into a brainstorming session or two (or 12). Brainstorming, after all, is supposedly a killer way to come up with ideas, and businesses want to take advantage of all that collective creativity. But it turns out that brainstorming is actually a terrible technique—in fact, people generate fewer good ideas when they brainstorm together than when they work alone. Thankfully, there’s a better way: a technique called brainwriting (think brainstorming, but with a pen and paper and less chitchat). And in a new study, researchers tested out variations of this method to understand exactly how to help people come up with their best ideas.

Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work
The old brainstorming method infiltrated the American workplace over half a century ago, after an advertising executive named Alex F. Osborn coined the method in the 1940s. As companies all over the country adopted the method, psychologists started to wonder: Does brainstorming actually work? Many scientific studies later, they had their answer: a resounding no. Study after study found that people who use this group technique produce fewer good ideas than those who ideate alone.

Brainstorming does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

This is surprising, since researchers have also seen that group interaction helps people build on each other’s thoughts and stimulate new ideas they hadn’t considered before. But group brainstorming has many downsides—chief among them is that only a single person can talk at a time, which means that one or two people can dominate the conversation. It also means that while someone is sharing his idea, others might forget their own ideas or the group may become fixated on the ideas people already shared. “Brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build,” says Paul Paulus, a professor psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well.” The end result is that brainstorming does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do.


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