Why Traditional Brainstorming Sucks and How to Improve it

Brainstorming is a fancy word for group discussions, which is coined by its founder Alex Osborn. Based on the assumption that “unity is strength”, Osborn wondered why we shouldn’t unite in order to produce ideas or solve problems. Although it makes perfect sense, does the proverb “unity is strength” apply to generating ideas?

In short, the answer is: No. Then, you may wonder why we insist on conducting “brainstorming sessions”. That is an another topic, but let’s see why the traditional brainstorming sucks.

Psychology says so

The reason for brainstorming’s incompetence lies in group psychology. As humans, we don’t always make plausible decisions or act in a sensible way. While it may be tempting to think humans’ efforts can be summed together, like some kind of math equation, psychology tells us otherwise.

Based on hundreds of research, it is clear that people in groups tend to put in less effort; as they think their performance is not individually monitored. So if you are to conduct a brainstorming session, make sure that each member of the group thinks that his/her performance is being tracked.

Besides decreased individual performance, groups tend to intensify ideologies. Research on group psychology says that interacting with like-minded people profoundly intensify our thoughts. If the group is not aware of this effect, it can cause biased opinions.

While groups’ nature is biased, there is even a more important key aspect to conducting objective brainstorming sessions: Opinions of the leader. It is crucial for the director of the session to be objective. A slight sign of opinion can direct the groups’ overall thoughts and ideas.

It is also important to be aware of production blocking. Production blocking is when one member of the group starts talking and disallows others from developing their ideas or talking.

The worst of the worst: Abilene Paradox

Have you ever resisted to express your feelings to someone, only to find out they share the same feelings? If so, you’ve experienced a mild case of Abilene paradox. It is a phenomenon in which although all group members share the same thoughts, they act in the opposite way.

While it may be confusing and hard to believe, this paradox happens much more than we can predict. One member expresses an idea that he/she does not agree with, only to start a conversation. However, other members of the group act like they agree with the idea although they don’t; due to the fear of separation.

In order to overcome this widely happening paradox, we first need to become aware of it. Then, we need to asses the actual risks of a situation. Most of the times, members exaggerate potential risks of disagreeing with an idea. Members need to be sure that they won’t be fired, just because they think differently. Also, each member of the group should own up to his/her belief. This can be realized through awareness. Last but not least, members need to think that they can confront the group if they want to.

Ideal brainstorming looks like;

probably not like this.

An ideal brainstorming session requires an objective leader. Each member of the group should be aware of the Abilene paradox. Each member should know that their performance is individually monitored. Each member should work on the subject prior and after the brainstorming session. Each member should be comfortable with criticism. The group should not mostly consist of likely-minded people in terms of the brainstorming subject. Group should be occasionally sub-divided. Before taking action, a “second-chance” meeting should be conducted. Encourage critical evaluation. Even assign a member to always try to refute the ideas.




student @ bogazici / growth

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Deniz Göçer

Deniz Göçer

student @ bogazici / growth

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