Brainstorming is an inefficient method of generating ideas

Brainstorming in Action

Brainstorming in Action

I was just listening to a podcast (Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) where  experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman spoke briefly about a new book that he is working on.  When he was asked to briefly describe it, he mentioned that it was about how many of the everyday psychological self-help techniques and directives we’ve been taught are either completely useless or just very ineffective.

When prompted for an example, he mentioned that “brainstorming” is generally a very poor way to conduct idea-generating meetings.  This caught the hosts (and myself) off-guard.  I’ve done a lot of brainstorming over the years and those meetings always seem to erupt with interesting ideas.  The hosts also wanted an explanation because their experience indicated that brainstorming has been highly effective.  So what’s the deal?

Prof. Wiseman elaborated, “[Brainstorming] does generate ideas, but what’s better is for all those people to generate ideas on their own, then come into the room together.”  An empty meeting dedicated to brainstorming encourages “social loafing” whereby some people in the room kick back and don’t contribute anything at all, or else there is anxiety from those people about contributing within the social context.

This hits home for me because I’ve often requested this approach at work, with very little success.  Why?  Because it’s really, really hard.  Thinking creatively is much more difficult than working your way through a pre-defined checklist of tasks.  One of the most difficult, unassigned jobs we have here in my work place is coming up with user interface elements (for software).  We know that we want a User Profile page, but nobody can say just exactly what elements go within the page and exactly where on the page.  Nobody can say how big each element is, what color it should be, or exactly what data it should feature.

It almost always comes down to one person (a developer) throwing something on the screen.  This single first draft then becomes the de facto standard and eventually makes it way into production with very little challenge.

I’ve always thought that it would be much more effective for the stake holders to each attempt a personal one-shot of a particular user-interface screen on paper and then have everyone present their ideas at a brainstorming meeting.  Just spend like 20 minutes drawing your vision of the My Profile screen with all the details, and then come into the meeting and explain it to us.  Looks like Prof. Wiseman agrees with me.  :)

2 comments to Brainstorming is an inefficient method of generating ideas

  • I’m confused.

    Aren’t there many different ways to go about brainstorming? Isn’t brainstorming just the process of generating ideas?

    I have in fact done exactly what Wiseman suggests (Think Apart, evaluate together) under the guise of brainstorming.

  • Sure, you’re right. The name isn’t what matters, it comes down to technique. One could argue that the most common method of brainstorming is to get a bunch of people in a room and talk about ideas without any preparation.

    If you brainstorm by assigning a task to be completed before the event, and then gather to discuss your results and the ideas generated, then you are already using the more efficient method.

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