It’s taken 75 years to prove that Brainstorming doesn’t really work. Anyone that’s really capable of generating ideas discovered this about 5 minutes after their first session, but if you ever said it out loud, especially in a big corporation, you risk sounding like a complete, self-righteous, egotistical ass.
In 1941 Alex F. Osborn, a NYC ad exec was looking for a better way to create and stimulate new ideas. Brainstorming was born. Osborn described brainstorming as “a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members”. Here are the rules:
No criticism of ideas
Go for large quantities of ideas
Build on each other’s ideas
Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
When Osborn’s rules were followed they resulted in more ideas and, the perception was, more good ideas. Brainstorming caught on and became the wildly popular office technique we have today. He nailed the name, didn’t he?
Science says that Brainstorming really doesn’t work though. Since the debut of the concept. psychologists have found in a number of studies that the method isn’t nearly as effective as once believed.
While it’s definitely true that group interaction stimulates creativity, Brainstorming falls short in a few big ways, probably the most notable of which is the nature of the way ideas are presented in a group. Because only one person can speak at a time the discussion tends to be dominated by less people. People also need time to think independently to generate ideas. Some of the best ideas come while your jogging or showering and let’s face it, it’s awkward to have a meeting there.
Brainstormers and those looking for an excuse to hover over a giant plate of cookies, need not worry, though. 75 years later, a better process has been developed: Brainwriting. Brainwritng is a lot like Brainstorming, but instead of discussing ideas out loud ideas are recorded on paper. After a period of writing, group members trade papers and read the ideas of others out loud while also writing down new ideas that come to mind. According to Paul Paulus, a psychologist who recently proved the method’s effectiveness, Brainwriting is so successful because it has all the creative stimulation of group interaction without the negative aspects of face-to-face presentation. “Alone, you never get other people’s ideas. And if you’re in a group all the time, you may spend more time thinking about other people’s ideas than your own,” Paulus says.
Paulus’ study, which was recently published in Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, found that Brainwriting produced 37% more ideas than individual idea generation. At Looney, we’ve instinctively employed this tactic for more than a decade in a similar format. It’s nice to see someone has vindicated our approach with some research to back it up.