Decoding Design

Why brainstorming doesn't work--and what does

Posting in Architecture

Brainstorming is the go-to activity for group idea generation. Historically, studies have shown it doesn't always succeed. Are there better ways to promote collaborative creativity?

Brainstorming, which originated in the late 1940s, is a popular and enduring act of group creativity. We all know how it works: gather a team in a room, and let thoughts fly. Don't criticize or cut down any of the ideas that surface, because the goal is sheer quantity. Record everything on whiteboards or, if you work at a design or tech firm, brightly-hued or giant-sized Post-It notes.

But studies have proven that brainstorming doesn't really work, in terms of producing the largest quantity of feasible ideas, when compared to solo idea generation that is later shared with colleagues. So writes Jonah Lehrer in the article "Groupthink," which appears in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (note: requires a subscription or paid access to read online). He cites historical research conducted at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, which come to this conclusion.

Still, even if it's not necessarily traditional brainstorming, collaborative thinking is a big trend. In science, levels of teamwork have shot up in more than 95% of scientific sub-fields; average scientific research teams have grown by roughly 20% every ten years over the past 50 years. These figures, Lehrer reports, are the findings of Kellogg School of Management (at Northwest University) professor Ben Jones, who analyzed 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents dating from the last half-century.

But collaboration is more than a trend; it's the path to success in terms of scientific papers. Jones found that papers with more than 100 citations were more than six times as likely to be the product of a team of scientists. Why? Jones believes collaboration is key as technological and scientific challenges become increasingly complex and often require expertise across various disciplines.

Here are some tips for encouraging productive group creativity, taken from Lehrer’s New Yorker article, which stray from everyday brainstorming techniques:

  • Rather than brainstorm with the traditional "no criticism, every idea is worthy" rule, encourage debate. It isn't pretty or polite, but team members engage more with their colleagues' ideas. They often come up with more thoughts--many of them unpredictable and original--after facing conflicts (the conclusions of a study by U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Charlan Nemeth).
  • Take a cue from the most successful Broadway musicals (Lehrer points to empirical evidence conducted by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University), which tend to have a mix of repeat collaborators and new talent on their creative teams, rather than closed circles of long-time co-workers, or all-new groups who aren't familiar with each other.
  • Collaborate physically near others to promote better group ideas. The ideal distance? Thirty-two feet. This is based on research by Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac Kohane, who used the numbers of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers as a metric. Those groups with the most citations for their collaborative papers were working within 32 feet of one another. Those with the least were at least a half a mile apart.
  • Force teams into chance encounters in the workplace, via architecture. Lehrer cites Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Steve Jobs: Jobs guided the design of Pixar's headquarters to offer an atrium that housed the only bathrooms in the building (later, more were added)--thus increasing the odds that writers and programmers would discuss cross-disciplinary ideas, even during their breaks.
  • Consider abandoning beautiful design when attempting to create an effective creative space. Lehrer cites Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which has been demolished), originally a temporary building nicknamed the "plywood palace." Bose Corporation used it as an incubator. The first video game was created there. And linguistic study was revolutionized within Building 20, too. It was so ugly and underdesigned, researchers who worked there were forced to customize their work spaces. The room numbering made no sense, and people got lost. So they wandered into each other's genuinely creative, personalized labs and offices. And exchanged ideas.
  • Think about it: brainstorming, for all its ostensible freedom of thought, actually asks teams to follow a script of non-criticism and free-flowing associations. Consider re-writing it.

Could all of these recommendations be replicated to achieve maximum creative group idea generation? Possibly. At the very least, these studies and suggestions seem to point to the real secret sauce for successful collaborative creativity: teams that are made up of individuals with different opinions and backgrounds, who are familiar enough with each other to be open-minded yet brutally honest about their colleagues' newest ideas.

Image: sonson/Flickr

Share this

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure