Brainstorming doesn’t work

Is it time to start thinking of ideas generation in a different way and sacrifice the sacred cows of old? Should we admit what people have known for sometime, that so-called traditional brainstorming doesn’t work?

Ideastorm, brainstorming, ideas generation, training workshopIf brainstorming is simply dumping a bunch of people in a boardroom and expect them to suddenly ‘get creative’ and come up with some amazing ideas then it’s no wonder it fails.

There are two key elements of the classic brainstorm that we want to examine and challenge here and they’re both wrapped up together:

  • Brainstorming is a group activity
  • There should be no judgmental, critical or negative attitudes in the meeting.

So lets get stuck in on some clear and simple facts on the matter: Firstly, let’s admit that it’s individuals who think of ideas, not groups. But we all know from personal experience that one of the things that can inspire an individual to think of a great idea is being in a group. But it has to be the right group.

…Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

– Johan Lehrer in the New Yorker, January 2012

Large groups or groups that contain political or power plays will not work. People will feel inhibited or too much pressure to perform or conform. All those things ruin the creative process in the mind.

This is why the original brainstorming condition is to have no negative or judgmental attitudes in the meeting. This is the main mantra of idea generation practitioners because most people are so lacking in confidence in their own creativity that one harsh comment will shut them down.

But there’s another reason to get the group dynamic right. Think about yourself for a moment. It’s really annoying to be in a group that doesn’t ‘get’ where you’re coming from or doesn’t let you speak. They might not have the inside track on the issues or they may not be as engaged in the theme as you are. They may not listen to your valuable insight, preferring the sound of their own voices. In any large group there’s bound to be some arrogance or envy and let’s face it, people you don’t like or don’t get on with.

This leads us to that brainstorming rule. The only way to deal with this problem is to level the playing field by bringing in the ‘don’t be rude and don’t be negative’ instruction. It creates the democracy to allow everyone equal say and have equal value. Sounds good in principle but in practice something else happens.

Research has been done that ‘proves’ that by not having debate, criticism and argument, a soft and fluffy nice meeting is manifested where too many diverse ideas are generated that cause ‘cognitive fixation’ . The mind gets blocked and fixated on those multitude of ideas and fails to break out into something innovative. Everyone is too busy being nice.

Too many organisations are running their sessions under these wrong conditions. They may have too many people, too many of the same type of people or too many disparate people.

By fixating on the democratisation of creativity are we mixing up the different types of contributions that individuals and groups can bring?

Perhaps we expect too much from an ‘idea’ meeting. Do we expect great original idea after great original idea? Perhaps what we should be aiming for is smaller quantum jumps from ideas put forward. Perhaps the role of a group is to fiddle with ideas put forward by individuals, who have already made intuitive leaps, and to improve those ideas?

Throughout history, groups and teams have out-performed individuals in the elaboration, expression, development and manifestation of an idea. Yes, an individual may be remembered as the one who ‘thought of it’, the the combined group mind always improves and builds on it.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney ink drawingWith the Beatles the main ideas generating group for their songwriting was John Lennon and Paul McCartney, working together to create all those hits. So here we have a brainstorming group of just two. They didn’t even let George in on the songwriting meetings, he and Ringo would have to wait until the songs were more or less finished and presented to the group to arrange and embellish.

But Lennon and McCartney didn’t run a ‘let’s be nice to each other’s views’ songwriting brainstorm. It’s well documented that their differences and disagreements would cause arguments and fights. And yet it was these differences that made them great (and the same differences would eventually pull them apart).

We have the stereotypes of McCartney singing the optimistic, “It’s getting better all the time” and Lennon add the sardonic, cynical, “couldn’t get no worse”.

They’d do that with each other, face to face, opposite each other with guitars. With McCartney being left handed they would have appeared as if looking into a mirror.

Paul would sing, “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean” and John would stop and say, “I LOVE that!”. In Hey Jude, Paul sings a line he was unhappy with, “the movement you need is on your shoulder” and John retorted, “don’t change it, that’s the best bit!”.

We now know that although all those Lennon-McCartney songs were credited as equal compositions, they were nearly all instigated by one of the pair first and then worked up afterwards, together, then further developed with the other members of their team.

Paul McCartney may have thought of the ‘idea’ for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. But it was the team of the four Beatles, their producer and engineers that embellished, elaborated, enhanced and manifested that idea into the record.

This should be our new model for brainstorming (or Ideastorming as I call it). Here are the new guidelines:

  • get a small group of two to five people who you trust. Could you bare to be stuck with them in traffic for eight hours? Could you bare to be stranded overnight with them?
  • each prime mover puts forward their ideas and the others help to change, embellish, enhance or reject them as an evolving debate.

Can it really be that simple? Actually yes. The secret to making brainstorming work was not to leave your brain at the door. All along we should have been using a healthy dose of common sense and realise that no strict formula or rules of ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’ has any place in creativity.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Click here to learn about Ayd’s Ideastorm workshops.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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8 comments on “Brainstorming doesn’t work

  1. Great article and well made point. I have deserted the brain storm process for sometime now in favour of individual idea generation then opened up for discussion. Love your test of would you want to be stuck in traffic for eight hours with them. Not sure some of the groups I work with would want to be stuck with me!


    • Hi Charlotte…
      We agree with you.. as Ayd says in his article, it’s individuals that come up with the idea.

      We thought you would love this brainstorming tool ( because it will allow individuals to brainstorm on their own, but then instantly aggregate altogether for comment and voting for action. Hope that helps.


  2. This is a totally brilliant article that should be on the BBC news website, published in a newspaper or even justifying a book of its own. It picks up on so many of the problems with doing things the “received” way. It highlights the poison of all those pointless meetings like in the sitcom TwentyTwelve. And it reminds me of Keith Johnstone’s book, “Improvisation for Storytellers” – in which he frequently draws the line between how an exercise works, and why most people teach his exercises wrong! It’s the subtleties that make a king.


  3. An undoubtedly effective alternative to a standard brainstorming scenario would be for an individual to write a blog article that starts with a great question. The question remains rhetorical until the individual has moulded an initial response and shaped it like clay until other individuals can recognize its form. They can then choose to engage with it – by perhaps suggesting modifications or adding to it.

    Today, across the internet, a multude of websites, blogs, forums and chat rooms enable anyone to be the ‘i’ in an idea. Whether the idea soars like a dogfish or swims like an eagle often depends more on the serendipity of time and place than on fixed rules of engagement.

    The wonderful TED talks are a rich source of ideas, questions and debates.


  4. The idea that if we just get a bunch of people together in a room that great things will happen is clearly naive. Every individual has an agenda, and for any brainstorm (or ideastorm as you put it) to be successful a strong creative leader must be present and come to the meeting with a goal in mind. It’s then up to the moderator to use the group to come up with the expression of that goal that resonates strongest with the goal and the group.

    To me the point of such sessions is as much about establishing clear ownership of the outcome by the participants as it is to create great ideas. And the moderator should absolutely bubble the best ideas to the top and advocate for them.

    Michael Villa
    CEO & Founder
    Dovetail Internet Technologies


  5. Hi Ayd, We totally agreed that it’s individuals that come up with ideas. In fact, we built a tool that allows you to have individuals in a group brainstorm on their own and then instantly pull all the results together for the group and the facilitator to review and make decisions on. People can continue to build on the ideas of others and we hope that inspiration is infections.

    You can capture comments, votes and thinking with as many people as you want.

    Try it out for free at and let us know what you think!




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