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Why brainstorming in groups fails

An interview with Jonah Lehrer

BNR: The discussion of brainstorming is particularly counterintuitive; you point to research that indicates how “criticism and debate” — despite the former term’s association with repressive negativity — is a more fruitful model for groups working together.  If brainstorming is so unsuccessful a strategy for generating innovation, why has it held on for so long?

JL: I think the allure of brainstorming is inseparable from the fact that it feels good. A group of people are put together in a room and told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The imagination is meek and shy: If it’s worried about being criticized it will clam up.) Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has contributed; nobody has been criticized. Alas, the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of these free-associations are superficial and that most brainstorming sessions actually inhibit the productivity of the group. We become less than the sum of our parts. 

As you note, researchers have shown that group collaborations benefit from debate and dissent; it is the human friction that makes the sparks. Alas, the presence of criticism means that a few people are going to get their feelings hurt. So I think one reason we’ve clung to brainstorming for decades is that it increases employee morale, even if that comes at the cost of creativity. That’s an unfortunate truth, of course, but that doesn’t make it less true. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs always insisted that new ideas required “brutal honesty.”


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