When I was growing up in school, brainstorming was a popular way to force students to mingle ideas and to allegedly communicate non-judgmental bits of information. Unfortunately, if you didn’t have a proper leader for a brainstorming session, the task quickly became dull, and critical, and I always found those forced sessions to be less about new ideas and more about everyone deciding to just confirm the mainstream, mortal, status quo. I also learned to keep my mouth shut, and my contributions to a minimum, because I knew my outlier notions would be met with ridicule and misunderstanding.

I was sort of relieved this week to read what I already knew:  Brainstorming really doesn’t work very well:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

On May 30, 2005 in my article — Why Groups Fail — I shared this notion:

W. R. Bion generally suggests groups are always calculated to fail because of a forced sense of cohesion that is only a cover for competing individual internal desires “unspoken private motives sabotage the public group effort to preserve the self in society.”  In my experience, groups spend a lot of time arguing over process and not in achieving end product.

In my anti-wisdom-of-crowds article. written March 10, 2008, I argue for individual-centered crowd sourcing:

We are all central to ourselves and to the core of our ever-changing, pressed together, groups. Exporting and sharing the “group decision” — culled from private imaginings into a group conclusion — is dangerous as well because only the majority mindset will rule the propagation.

Some might argue the majority mentality warns against outliers having too much importance in the group decision but, I argue, the very notion of cutting out the dissent of the wild idea and the presuming, independent notion, is what causes groups to crash into the middling instead of the precise.

When you get statistical confirmation of a truth you’ve long known has existed for over three decades, you begin to wonder who knows what and if any of us really knows anything at all. Who am I to tell you how to think, and who are you to tell me how to behave?

We search for commonality and shared memes but, I believe, in the end, we are all inescapably trapped in our own minds — with no way out — and we are all sentenced to live out our thoughts in solitude because sharing innovative things is too dangerous to the spirit and too many people are afraid of getting cut to the point of bleeding.


  1. Ayn Rand always argued against groupthink and surely found brainstorming to be useless. I wish her name was not so closely associated with the Tea Party now. Guh.

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