Brainstorming doesn’t work

The concept of brainstorming was pioneered by an adman named Alex Osborn in the 1953. The fundamental rule to making it work was “Don’t Criticise” – ie. all ideas are good ideas.

However, numerous psychological studies have shown that if a group of people were to work on a problem individually, the collective volume and quality of ideas is greater than a communal brainstorm with the same people. Additionally, groups that engage in constructive criticism have been shown to produce 25-40% more ideas than in non-critical sessions, and these ideas have been rated as more original.

Can brainstorming really be used effectively?


  1. I disagree with the narrators point of view on this. The reason you shouldn’t disagree with an idea in a brainstorm is not because of the belief that ‘Every idea is a good one’, it’s because of the fact that any idea can lead to another. It’s about creating a environment to greenhouse or grow ideas, not to critique them. Save that for another time. It’s the difference between convergent (criticism) and divergent (additive/sythethis) thinking. Divergent thinking create ideas, convergent, refines them.

    And to the comment that ‘the only way to overcome free associations is to criticise’, what about Re-expression – finding an alternative way to describe the idea that someone has come up with; Or Synthesis – combining an idea with something else that you know or have heard of. Both of these techniques lead to new and interesting ideas without criticising the first.

  2. I agree with the fact that brainstorming doesn’t work. There are so many things at play that stops people speaking up… I heard another RSA lecture (by the same guy) that made this same point about innovation not being effective in a brainstorm environment. He claimed that it was a newly discovered human attribute called “grit” that makes someone innovative – the determination to do something brilliantly. The entire lecture was fascinating (if you have 40 minutes or so)

  3. “Brainstorming” is such a loose title for a technique that can take many different forms and involve many different factors. Which combined, dramatically affect the outcome. I have been in and out of brainstorms for the last 10+ years. I have seen many different techniques, many different personalities at play, with many different outcomes. Some that produce award winning solutions, some that produce nothing. Executed with the right dynamic, brainstorms 100% work.

    For me, there are four things that affect the productivity and outcome of a brainstorm – leadership, a clear agenda, confidence, and energy.

    Leadership – Ensure that the brainstorm has leadership. Someone bringing the energy, setting the agenda, exploring and evolving the different threads of thought to see how far they go, and shutting down (nicely) the ones that don’t go anywhere.

    A clear agenda – Ensure that there is a clear agenda, with a set problem to address with a set outcome. A brainstorm should be used to get as many ideas on the table as possible, not a final solution. These ideas provide a starting point for developing a final solution. Which is done following a brainstorm, possibly only by one individual.

    Confidence – Involve people who are passionate about thinking and not afraid to share ideas. Any ideas. If you’ve got a what-about-midgets-playing-scrabble idea, share it but understand it may not go anywhere. People have to be open to constructive criticism and opinion – it’s the only way to test an idea on the spot. And it’s the only way to learn how to focus your thinking. So I agree that criticism is necessary, but needs to be delivered correctly in order to inspire more thinking, not intimidate.

    Energy – The person leading the brainstorm needs to keep the energy high, so people are stimulated to do as much thinking as possible.

    At the end of the day, brainstorms need to be productive and make the best use of time. Otherwise, what is the point? I believe there needs to be a happy medium between being too open and free with ideas and being too critical. Both ends of the spectrum are counterproductive.

  4. This post was a bit hard to understand as people (and it looks like it is the case here) don’t know how to use the word criticism or critique. Critique is an approach, a methodology of an oral or written discourse. Here it looks like they are saying, don’t say negative things because all the ideas are good. Well you can do a positive critique. The word goes both ways. lol.
    Of course it was still nice to hear about all the different views on the subject.

  5. I listened to a Doctor of Psychology lecture on this topic a few years ago. Her message was that whilst there is evidence that individual brainstorming can provide a greater breadth and depth of ideas, brainstorming as a group can add another layer as it allows initial ideas to be challenged and more often than not, enriched.
    The issue with brainstorming that I have seen is that often people have the impression that the actual brainstorming begins at the meeting, not before. The problem with this is that it can be difficult to stimulate a range of ideas, and one idea (often the first idea put forward) can dominate and set the tone of the discussion. This idea may not necessarily be the best starting place.
    I think the learning here is that brainstorming is definitely a valuable exercise, but can be even more valuable when each individual brings something to the discussion. It is useful for the leader / meeting organiser to provide some questions to answer or stimulus to incubate initial thinking prior to the meeting.

  6. I think I love the idea of a brainstorm more than I do the actual reality. The idea of a bunch of smart, creative, interesting people in a room discussing ideas and coming up with solutions. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

    But the truth is good brainstorms take a lot of work. And like Alison said, they start well before the brainstorm begins. If you haven’t done the research, if you haven’t read the brief, if you haven’t already started to workshop ideas – your ability to contribute meaningfully to a brainstorm is limited.

    I think Karl’s core four – leadership, agenda, confidence & energy – are vital. Without any one of those elements you are doomed. But for me it comes down to one fundamental issue – you cannot solve the problem if you don’t understand the issue. Read the brief. Understand the objectives. Research the market. Write it all down. Then join the brainstorm.

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