Stay away from brainstorming!

If you're looking for quantity and quality in group creativity.
Francesco | 14.11.16

Some years ago, I was asked to hold a one-day training course on creativity and innovation for the managers and employees of companies located in the north-east of Italy. Together with my amazing colleagues, we decided to introduce the section on group creativity and problem solving by doing a small ‘field-experiment’. We wanted to avoid the typical post-lunch sleepiness with an interactive activity, and also to collect some more data on the group creativity performances - any time is a good time for us research-addicted nerds!

The Test

So, we randomly split the attendees into two groups and asked them ‘How to promote the diffusion of canoeing in Italy?’. The first group was moved into a cozier room to do a traditional brainstorming session, with the help of a skilled facilitator and an assistant who collected the group’s answers, while the second group, well, was not a real ‘group’, since participants had to work alone and write their ideas down on paper (this is called the ‘nominal group technique’).

When all the attendees were back together, I asked them which group they believed has been the most productive. They gave an unanimously answer: the brainstorming group, of course!

The Result

But, as you might suspect, the actual results were quite different. During the coffee break, my colleagues and I had conducted a quick first analysis of the ideas produced by the two groups, so we were able to show them that the people who worked alone had produced more than twice as many ideas than the brainstorming group! And we were talking about original ideas, produced by no-one else in the group.

This was an unexpected result for all of them. I still remember their faces staring up at me incredulously, surprised and amazed at the same time! Afterwards, I started explaining them why this happened - the various socio-cognitive biases that lead to the productivity loss - and also why people like brainstorming despite it is ineffective: the illusion of productivity. This has been one of the best moments of my teaching career so far.

Quantity or quality?

Fast forward a few years and I decided to analyse that data again, this time without the haste of having to do it during a coffee break! My aim was to investigate whether the ideas produced by the two groups differed in terms of quality. Indeed, one of the most common comments to the very robust finding that nominal groups produce more ideas than brainstorming groups, is that at the end it does not matter. Idea quality is the only thing that matters, and the quality of ideas produced by brainstorming is necessarily better due to group stimulation, something that cannot happen in nominal groups. So who cares if a brainstorming group produces 20 ideas instead of the 50 that individuals working alone can generate in the same time (mind you, the people saying this are the same people who say that ‘quantity breeds quality’, talk about cognitive dissonance...)

There are already, however, some research papers saying that the quality of ideas from nominal groups are equal or even better than ideas produced by brainstorming, but I was eager to see it with my own eye.

I asked a couple of colleagues who were unaware of the origin of the ideas (e.g. whether they were from nominal groups or brainstorming groups), to rate each idea on their originality and overall quality. It turned out that the mean originality scores were extremely similar between the two groups (no statistically significant differences), but the mean overall quality was significantly higher for the nominal group!

So, not only did individuals working alone produce more ideas than the ones engaged in the brainstorming session, they were steadily generating good quality ideas.

Can we trust averages?

‘Yes’, you might say, ‘we trust you but averages can be misleading, so what about the frequency of high quality ideas in both groups?’

True, you have a good point, so I went looking also at the number of high quality ideas, and the result was even stronger: individuals working alone produced ten times as many high quality ideas than the brainstorming group.

For the numbers-addicted, here are the details: 42 high quality ideas out of 105 total in the nominal group technique, this means 40%, and 4 out of 41 in the brainstorming group, that is slightly less than 10% - these results have been presented at the Trieste Symposium on Perception and Cognition, on the 4th of November 2016, and will be soon published in a paper - stay tuned!

So, shall we say goodbye to teamwork?

I’ll say it again: there were ten times as many high quality ideas in nominal groups than brainstorming! This result speaks for itself, but there is still something extra worth noting. Participants taking part in the brainstorming group had a fun time and were happy to do other sessions, while the ones who had worked alone found their task boring and were envying the brainstorming participants. Indeed, this is one of the reasons for brainstorming success in the business world, despite the overwhelming data saying that it’s ineffective: people believe that it works, and they like to storm a problem together.

So the quick suggestion ‘Don’t brainstorm, just make people create ideas alone’ is likely to not be very successful in most teams. What can we do then?

This was the first issue that we wanted to address when we started Mindiply: people like to work on creativity problems as a team, but we know that the good ol’ brainstorming is not the best way to do it (and I’m being polite…).

Our solution?

Neonce, which is both a method and a web application that guides you and your team to achieve great results when working on problem solving or creativity tasks. We have designed it following the best practices and results of the cognitive psychology research. Everybody first generates ideas individually, then the ideas are shared and the group stimulation kicks in. There are also other features such anonymity, a clear structure to reducing distractions, and much more! You can find out about it here.

The beta version of Neonce is online, and it’s completely FREE. If your team would benefit from this, we would love to hear from you and you can sign up for a free version here.

Sign up to our monthly newsletter about smart thinking at work