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Putting the Brain Back Into Brainstorming

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, November 2006, Feature

By: Paul B. Paulus

Brainstorming as we commonly practice it is only partly effective, asserts researcher and professor Paul Paulus--and solid science has given him the numbers to back up that claim. Learn how with a few tweaks you can get more thunder and lightning and less drizzle from your idea-generation sessions.
Summary: Brainstorming as we commonly practice it is only partly effective, asserts researcher and professor Paul Paulus--and solid science has given him the numbers to back up that claim. Learn how with a few tweaks you can get more thunder and lightning and less drizzle from your idea-generation sessions.

Every day, groups of people practice brainstorming, hoping that the time they spend generating dozens upon dozens of ideas will result in something truly remarkable. And the people in those groups often leave such sessions disappointed. Why? Because the way brainstorming is typically practiced, there's plenty of rain in the storm--that is, plenty of ideas falling from the sky--but not much lightning--the exceptional ideas that have the potential to set things on fire.

The term "brainstorming" was coined by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his classic books on the topic in the 1940s through the '60s. Brainstorming was defined as a means of generating ideas, typically in groups, by focusing on producing a large quantity of ideas in a nonevaluative atmosphere.

To ensure success of brainstorming in groups, Osborn outlined four rules:

1. Brainstormers were not to criticize each other's ideas as they were presented, since that would inhibit idea sharing. Critical evaluation is reserved for a later idea-selection session.

2. Brainstormers were to say all ideas that came to mind. In most social settings we are concerned with making a favorable impression; thus, there is a tendency to self-censor ideas that might be judged negatively. This social dynamic is one basis for the well-known groupthink phenomenon.

3. Brainstormers were instructed to generate as many ideas as possible, since it was presumed that by generating many ideas they would also coincidentally generate more good ideas.

4. Finally, brainstormers were to build on the ideas of others by combining their own ideas with those presented or by combining already presented ideas.

In his early writings, Osborn asserted that group brainstorming was particularly effective and much more likely to yield a large number of good ideas than private brainstorming. Group brainstorming as Osborn envisioned it can lead to a large number of ideas--but not necessarily more and better ideas than individual brainstorming. While Osborn was knowledgeable about the creative process, and his books were very compelling, he was not a scientist who conducted careful studies of the efficacy of the brainstorming process and tested the validity of his assumptions--and it did not take long for scientists to critically evaluate Osborn's model.

This type of research continues today; I personally have conducted dozens of experiments to evaluate the brainstorming process. Some of my research, as well as a good deal of contemporary research on brainstorming and other aspects of group ideation, can be found in a volume on group creativity that I co-edited with Bernard A. Njistad, Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 2003). Research literature shows that Osborn was overly optimistic about the effectiveness of group brainstorming but that his various ideas about factors that would enhance brainstorming were correct. This literature has also increased our understanding of the processes that underlie brainstorming as well as ways to enhance what for many organizations is a major driver of new ideas.

The Illusion of Effectiveness

Counter to Osborn's assertions, various reviews of the brainstorming literature have clearly demonstrated that group brainstorming is only about half as effective as individual brainstorming. These studies typically compare the performance of small groups of three or four brainstormers with the combined performance of similar numbers of individuals brainstorming alone.

Group brainstormers typically generate about half as many ideas and fewer good ideas (as rated by judges) as individual brainstormers. Ironically, group brainstormers often claim that they have been very productive, and most people assume that group brainstorming is more effective than individual brainstorming.

Why are conventional wisdom and the Osborn prediction wrong? Most people are simply not aware of all of the factors that inhibit group productivity. Researchers Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe showed that one of the major problems with group interaction on intellectual--and even motor--tasks is that of interference or blocking. The actions of others in the group may distract and limit one's opportunity to contribute. It is hard to get a good flow of ideas when others are talking (and one is trying to listen)--and, naturally, one has less opportunity to generate ideas when competing for "floor time" with others than in a private session.

Groups also unwittingly provide a haven for people who would rather take a free ride while others do the intellectual work. This may be in part because people are concerned about making a bad impression if others don't like their ideas (even though the listeners may not say so publicly). All of these factors often conspire to produce a rather low level of activity that may become normative for the group. That is, people come to expect the low level of productivity that they typically experience in the group and assume this is normal--an assumption that is devastating to innovation.

Where Osborn Was Right

Even though Osborn was wrong about the effectiveness of group brainstorming, his ideas about the factors that are important for enhanced creativity in groups are right on target. Research shows that concern about being evaluated does inhibit individual or group brainstorming. Generating a lot of ideas does increase the number of good ideas created--but note, too, that quantity increases the number of good ideas but not necessarily the average quality of ideas.

Brainstormers are, as Osborn predicted, able to build effectively on the ideas of others--if they're able to pay attention to those ideas. Furthermore, recent research has demonstrated that group brainstorming can be significantly enhanced under the right conditions and can sometimes be even more effective than solitary brainstorming. So Osborn may have been right after all, but not exactly in the way he expected.

To understand how group brainstorming can be effective, one has to appreciate the social and cognitive dynamics of creative group interaction. The obvious benefit of group idea or information exchange is that the group members should be exposed to ideas or information that is novel. This is particularly likely if the group consists of individuals of diverse expertise or backgrounds.

Researcher Vince Brown and I have developed a cognitive model of group brainstorming that predicts such positive effects. Basically, we presume that individuals bring to the group a wide range of ideas or categories of knowledge. The idea-generation process involves tapping these knowledge bases and connecting them to the knowledge bases of other participants. Ideas shared in the group may stimulate participants to explore areas of knowledge that are not particularly salient in their knowledge network, and the group members may discover connections that would not be evident from their solitary knowledge bases.

Much of innovation in science today requires this type of collaborative exchange of ideas across disciplinary lines. Nobel Prizes tend to be awarded to people who are the first to make some key connections across disciplines or subdisciplines. For example, analytical chemists and biochemists working together can discover cancer drugs that neither of them could discover on their own. Several of my studies with Karen Dugosh have demonstrated that simply exposing individual brainstormers to other ideas as they brainstorm increases the number of ideas generated and the number of novel ideas. If there is such cognitive-stimulation potential in groups, how can we harness it to enhance group brainstorming? The basic answer is that one has to structure group brainstorming to allow the benefits of cognitive stimulation to rise to the top while also limiting the impact of negative social forces.

How to Get the Most Out of Group Brains

The most important factor in enhancing group brainstorming is to ensure that the members of the group have the ability to process as much of the shared ideas of the group as possible. This is difficult in the typical face-to-face brainstorming situation outlined above, but there are powerful alternatives.

One is to use idea-exchange methods that avoid the blocking or interfering effects of group interaction. Two approaches that have been quite effective are brainwriting and electronic brainstorming. These techniques allow group members to share ideas by means of pieces of paper or on a computer network in a way that avoids performance blocking. That is, these approaches allow one to generate ideas at any time without having to wait one's turn in the discussion process. During this process one can access ideas shared by others, either in part of the computer screen or by examining the written ideas of other group members as they are passed along.

Studies by Karen Dugosh and by Huei-Chan Yang in my laboratory have demonstrated that these techniques enable groups to significantly outperform sets of solitary individuals. In other words, computer- and writing-based approaches enable groups to experience the type of creative synergy that Osborn anticipated.

Of course it is not always feasible to use writing- or computer-based interaction formats. What should we do when it is desirable or necessary to have groups interact in a face-to-face manner? There are basically three strategies that one can consider.

One is to employ various techniques that have been found to enhance brainstorming for both individuals and groups. These techniques involve enhancing motivation or facilitating the cognitive processes involved in idea generation. Enhanced motivation and performance are possible by providing competitive feedback about the performance of others or other groups, making sure individuals feel personally accountable for their performance, setting high performance goals, and asking participants to focus on generating a larger number of ideas rather than focusing on high-quality ideas.

The flow of ideas also seems to be enhanced by structuring the task to avoid cognitive overload. If participants are asked to consider one aspect of a problem at a time rather than all aspects at the same time, they generate more ideas. My recent research with Toshihiko Nakui has demonstrated that brief breaks during brainstorming sessions increase the number of ideas generated. Research by Steve Smith suggests that the breaks allow participants to overcome cognitive blocks or "ruts" that can occur after a period of brainstorming focused on certain categories of ideas or approaches to the exclusion of others.

Another effective approach for group brainstorming is to encourage these groups to be as efficient as possible in their idea-exchange process. Research with Vicky Putman has shown that instructing group members to not elaborate unnecessarily on ideas and to avoid telling stories (something quite common in groups) leads groups to be less "wordy" and greatly increases the number of ideas they generate. Facilitators are often used to guide the groups in a more effective direction. These facilitators try to discourage negative group behaviors such as criticism, getting off track, and dominating conversations by one or a few people. They may also encourage participants to continue when they hit "dry periods" by suggesting they go back to categories of ideas that have not been fully explored. They may also prime the group with categories of ideas they have not considered at all.

Our research and that of others suggest that these tactics can work. A recent study by Jonali Baruah found that if one trains groups to brainstorm effectively using the various techniques we have found to be successful, these groups considerably increase both the quantity and quality of ideas. Her study is important because she demonstrates that these groups can be trained to function effectively on their own without the continuous presence of a facilitator.

A third way to tap the creative potential of face-to-face brainstorming groups is to alternate individual and group brainstorming. Group interaction may stimulate a lot of potential ideas, but one may not have time during the interaction to fully process the shared information and reflect on it. A period of solitary brainstorming after group brainstorming may allow one to harvest all of this extra potential. We have found in several studies that many additional ideas are generated in such sessions. This is a particularly important finding, since individuals in groups often assume that they have run out of ideas because the groups typically "wind down" their idea generation in a limited period of time. However, this winding down is more of a reflection of the social processes in the group than the actual creative potential. If individuals leave a group brainstorming session without having a subsequent solitary-reflection period, the cognitive stimulation resulting from the group interaction will quickly dissipate and not be tapped.

The People Factor in Group Brainstorming

Not everyone is equally suited to group brainstorming, and not all groups have as much creative potential as others. Some people tend to be uncomfortable in groups.

Researcher Mabel Camacho found that groups composed of individuals who have high levels of social anxiety showed the most detrimental performance in groups. Not surprisingly, groups composed of those who were low in social anxiety did quite well in groups. Similarly, researcher Tim Larey found that groups composed of individuals who like working in groups tend to perform better than those who have a negative attitude toward groups.

One of the central assumptions of group creativity is that groups composed of individuals with diverse expertise and backgrounds will be more creative. Ironically, many studies find that diverse groups can be uncomfortable for some group members and can actually inhibit creativity. For example, a recent study by Toshihiko Nakui found that ethnically and linguistically diverse groups yielded more negative feelings than less diverse groups.

The diverse groups generated fewer ideas but higher-quality ideas than less-diverse groups. The attitude of group members toward diversity appears to be an important factor. Those who had a positive attitude toward diverse workgroups were more likely to demonstrate high-quality ideas in diverse groups.

From the Mirage to the Meaningful

Group brainstorming may feel good, but it often gives people an illusion of being productive. Real productivity in brainstorming groups can be achieved when one understands the social and cognitive factors that underlie the group creative process. By using laboratory-tested techniques, training participants appropriately, and composing groups of the right individuals, one can more effectively tap creative potential. The lessons learned in group brainstorming can be applied to other group settings such as routine meetings and to teamwork in general. The effectiveness or productivity of most meetings and workgroups is likely to be much lower than participants and leaders realize, and the insights from the brainstorming literature can inform those who want more effective meetings and work teams.

One key feature of meetings and teamwork is that these settings often require decisions based on exchanged ideas or information. My colleagues and I have begun the study of decision making after group brainstorming. Our initial findings indicate that group members are not particularly good at selecting the most creative ideas--instead, there seems to be bias toward the most feasible ideas (i.e., the low-hanging fruit). However, the more ideas groups have to evaluate, the more likely they will select higher-quality ideas.

We are also hoping to use immersive reality systems to more precisely study the complexity of group creativity. Immersive reality allows us to create virtual worlds with people that have different features (gender, race, and so forth) and can be programmed to express different sets of ideas. This type of world can produce realistic effects with participants, so it may be one way to discover how different types of social and cognitive "group" experiences (such as virtual meetings) affect creative and decision-making processes.

With the progress of organizations--and, in fact, the world--depending largely on the quality of ideas groups can generate, it's important for our idea of what brainstorming should be and how it should be conducted to evolve in light of scientific research. A small change--such as giving your group a break in which individuals think alone--could go a long way toward improving the quality of your ideas and, therefore, the quality of your organization.

Paul B. Paulus is professor of psychology and dean of the College of Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He holds a doctorate in psychology and, along with Bernard A. Nijstad, edited a volume of research called Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 2003). E-mail:

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