Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead
“Sharing ideas in groups isn’t the problem, it’s the “out-loud” part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. “As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, told Fast Company. “Sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to my ideas.”
That process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality. “Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation,” Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. “They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem.”
Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called conformity pressure. People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped. We’ve all been in meetings like this: Some jerk says the obvious thing before anyone else, taking all of the glory; everyone else harrumphs. Brainstorm session over.
To avoid these problems, both Thompson and Nordgren suggest another, quieter process: brainwriting. (The phrase, now used by Thompson, was coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus.) The general principle is that idea generation should exist separate from discussion. Although the two professors have slightly different systems, they both offer the same general solution: write first, talk second.
Brainstorming works best if before or at the beginning of the meeting, people write down their ideas. Then everyone comes together to share those ideas out loud in a systematic way.”