Does Brainstorming Not Suck?

June 22nd, 2006

Bob Sutton has a post on his blog refuting the Wall Street Journal’s
recent articlewhere they cited research showing that idea generation through group brainstorming was no more productive than individuals coming up with ideas on their own.

“G]reat brainstorming sessions are possible, but they require the planning of a state dinner, plenty of rules, and the suspension of ego, ingratiation and political railroading. Hosts have to hope that people won’t expend creative energy trying to tell others their ideas are bad without actually telling them that — admittedly a real business skill. And they have to cross their fingers that the session won’t deteriorate into what some people call “blamestorming” or “coblabberation,” where you get nowhere or settle on something mediocre to be done with it….

My reaction to reading this is “So how DO you tell people that their ideas are bad?” It may seem flip, but often the difference between good and bad idea generation is how well the people involved know each other. I can tell my best friend that his shoes are ugly, but I couldn’t necessarily tell an employee of a client during a group facilitation the same thing.

Sutton says that because the sessions took place in an experimental environment rather than in a workplace with established culture and processes, that they can make no definitive claim on the efficacy of brainstorming.


if these were studies of sexual performance, it would be like drawing inferences about what happens with experienced couples on the basis of research done only with virgins during the first time they had sex.

This has little to do with sketching per se, but it has everything to do with creative thinking. I would agree with Sutton on this topic– I have been a part of both productive and unproductive brainstorming sessions and it seems that group dynamics and culture have more to do with its success or failure than any other factor.

One of the most creative times in my life was when I was taking an improv class while at school. The mental flexibility that was exercised regularly during that class spilled over into other aspects of my work. I would encourage any creative person to take 10% of their day and devote it to purely creative pursuits. We’d all be happier and more creative if 40 minutes a day was spend arranging flowers, building lamps out ot popsicle sticks or noodling on a piano.

If you’re interested in learning how to give effective feedback in a creative environment, check out Liz Lerman’s Method of Critical Response for a primer on civilized creative critique. Apparently she has an entire book on the subject, but I haven’t been able to track it down.

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