Think back to the last time you had a really creative idea. Where were you? What were you doing? If you're anything like the thousands of people I've asked over the last decade—from high school students to senior executives at Fortune 500 companies—then odds are you didn't say, "During a brainstorming session." Over the years, only a handful of individuals have told me a brainstorming session is where they came up with their best ideas.
Around the world, all kinds of people and organizations set out to solve creative problems by brainstorming. As a formal technique, brainstorming dates from 1938, when advertising giant BBDO promoted its top vice president, Alex Osborn, to save the company after it had lost a large number of clients during the Great Depression. To attract new clients, Osborn decided that he should bring his whole team together to come up with the best ideas for advertising campaigns. Brainstorming, or "thinking up," as Osborn originally called it, became the company’s most used method for ideation—and it took the world by storm: Osborn and BBDO pumped out advertising campaigns to encourage US armament during World War II and for high-octane clients such as General Electric, Chrysler, American Tobacco, BFGoodrich, and DuPont. As the method gained traction, Osborn renamed it brainstorming because the act itself was a “brainstorm"—a sudden neurological explosion from individuals in a group setting. And so came the pervasive gathering of colleagues saying, "Let's brainstorm a solution." Whenever we need an idea fast, we brainstorm.
Why did Osborn invent brainstorming? Here was his problem: In company-wide meetings, junior staff rarely spoke. Senior management dominated the conversation. His solution was to hold weekly "group-thinking" sessions that gave everyone an equal chance to speak. He ran the meeting and made sure to ask the junior staff for their thoughts.
There are many variations on the basic theme of brainstorming. This is a list of rules from IDEO, a creative company that offers a brainstorming service to clients:
- Go for quantity.
- Encourage wild ideas.
- Defer judgment.
- Build on the ideas of others.
- Stay focused on the topic.
These are the rules Osborn came up with in 1938. From banks to advisory firms, tech companies to manufacturers, public relations agencies to media companies, nonprofits to government agencies, brainstorming dominates creative thinking today. But let's ask an obvious question: Is brainstorming really creative? It certainly solved Osborn's original problem: how to get everyone to speak. And if you were to pick a problem and practice these rules in any social setting, it would certainly involve others in an interesting conversation. It can be fun to brainstorm. But does it actually generate great ideas?
Let's analyze the five rules of brainstorming. First, brainstorming is a numbers game. Rule 1: The more oysters you crack open, the greater your chance of finding a pearl. Rules 2 and 3 serve the first rule, to make sure that all ideas see the light of day. As for Rule 4, it sounds promising. But if you take the first three rules seriously, you might have a hundred ideas to build on. If I say, "Let's make our product glow red in moonlight and green in sunlight," and you say, "Let's make it transparent," what do we do?
Then someone else says, "Make it reflect the color of the sky." And that's only three ideas. When we mix in the dozens of other ideas, we have what I call "idea diarrhea."
Last but not least, Rule 5, which, in my opinion, is a straitjacket. You might have experienced this in your own work, where you realize you're solving the wrong problem and you shift your focus to something else. That means finding the problem is part of the creative process— you don't assume you have the right problem and then go on to brainstorm solutions.
In fact, the evidence is unambiguous—brainstorming does not work! In a seminal study on brainstorming from 1987, social psychologists Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe collected ideas from participants gathered in groups of four in a traditional brainstorming session. They then took the ideas of four individuals who worked separately and collected their ideas into one list. Researchers went on to compare the output from both groups and found that participants who generated ideas alone produced significantly more than individuals who worked in traditional group sessions: Those who ideated alone produced twice as many unique ideas as those who worked in a brainstorming group.
Increasingly, scientists have seen the creation of bias embedded in the group brainstorming process—and the outsized impact this has on creativity. Our biases are informed by group feedback. And we have come to understand just how stifling group dynamics can be on an individual's creativity. Individuals tend to self-censor in a variety of ways: They omit data, anchor on whatever idea was presented first or most recently, choose what's most convenient, and so on. This process tends to compound over time and create groupthink, which discourages creativity and individual responsibility. Consequently, academics and practitioners alike have become disenchanted with the act of brainstorming as a formal method of idea generation.
In my new book, I offer an alternative to brainstorming: a six-step method called Think Bigger that draws on the latest advances in neuro and cognitive sciences, which have revealed to us how creative ideas develop in the human mind.
This process is far more creative than brainstorming, which draws from the direct experience of people in the room—in other words, information sharing and surfacing. If I tell you, "Quick, throw out an idea!" you will draw on what you already know. If the people in the room have lots of experience— and diverse experience—brainstorming is very efficient for solving ordinary problems. That’s because the sum total of the experience in the room probably has all the solutions you need. But note that Henry Ford did not ask his engineers to brainstorm. He asked them to search the world for ideas to use—that’s how “Pa” Klann found the moving meatpacking line.
Think about it this way: If five people brainstorm as a group, they draw on the knowledge of only five people. We’ll call that “in the box” thinking. In Think Bigger, we ask you to draw on the knowledge of all humanity throughout recorded history, invest in hearing the ideas of others, and expand your knowledge beyond your comfort zone. We will refer to that as “out of the box” thinking. Where brainstorming confines, Think Bigger expands. Which seems more creative to you? Brainstorming today goes by many different names.
The most popular is design thinking. There we find three major steps: customer anthropology, brainstorming, and product prototyping. Think Bigger has nothing to say about the first and last aspects—customer anthropology and prototyping are fine. Think Bigger replaces the middle step: brainstorming. There are countless other methods like design thinking that embed brainstorming at their core—especially forms of research, analysis, and implementation. For all of them, Think Bigger has nothing to say about those other steps. But when it comes time to get your creative ideas, that’s when you need Think Bigger.
Adapted from Think Bigger: How to Innovate by Sheena Iyengar, published by Columbia Business School Publishing. Copyright 2023 Sheena Iyengar. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.