A Regular Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Brainstorming is NOT Creative
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that many organizations, when faced with a challenge, brainstorm it to death. “Let’s all get together in the Conference Room and we’ll throw a bunch of ideas up on the whiteboard and we should have this thing hammered out by lunchtime!” The prevalent thinking is that a bunch of people tossing random ideas at one another will eventually discover an idea that works.
Indeed, brainstorming seems to be the default answer to any organizational issue. Other creative endeavors are eschewed in favor of a strategy that has been celebrated for several decades. “If it’s been around for that long,” the thinking goes, “then it must be good.”
One researcher looked into the real effects of brainstorming on creative thinking and found that, rather than leading to a wealth of new ideas, brainstorming often narrows the focus of a group to just one, non-optimal idea. He found that it was common for members of a group to become fixated with the ideas of others, and for the group to unconsciously coalesce and conform to a single idea; rather than exploring a range of ideas.
Other experts have also underscored brainstorming’s lack of effectiveness as a creative endeavor. For example, in any group situation, there is a hierarchy. That is, some people in the group are perceived to have more “power” than others. Junior members are seen as less powerful and less influential than older, more established, members. This power differential results in select members generating a disproportionate amount of ideas, based solely on their social standing. “The more assured members of the group assert their ideas first and then those less confident agree, even if they might have equally sound ideas.”
Brainstorming also places arbitrary constraints on the generation of ideas. As we know, ideas come at odd times and in odd places – not always during a regularly scheduled meeting in Room 103 at 3:30 on Tuesday afternoons. R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology at Washington University says, “Brainstorming often…violates what we know about the generation of creative thoughts – simply because creativity is not a linear process: it’s adding ideas, subtracting ideas, combining ideas together, and slicing ideas up and putting them back together in new patterns or configurations.”
The bottom line: Use brainstorming with caution. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be!
Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks is an award-winning author of more than 170 books, including From Fizzle to Sizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity and How You Can Overcome Them as well as five other Blue River Press titles (e.g. Writing Children’s Books). He also pens a regular blog for Psychology Today.com (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/ contributors/anthony-d-fredericks-edd)
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