Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

4 minute read
Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton. He is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of Hidden Potential and Think Again, and the host of the TED podcast Re:Thinking.

When we’re confronting a vexing problem, we often gather a group to brain­storm. We’re looking to get the best ideas as quickly as possible. I love seeing it happen—except for one tiny wrinkle. Group brainstorming usually backfires.

In brainstorming meetings, many good ideas are lost— and few are gained. Extensive evidence shows that when we generate ideas together, we fail to maximize collective intelligence. Brainstorming groups fall so far short of their potential that we get more ideas—and better ideas—if we all work alone. As the humorist Dave Barry quipped, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: ‘meetings.’ ” But the problem isn’t meetings themselves—it’s how we run them.

Read More: Meetings Give Me Hives

Think about the brainstorming sessions you’ve attended. You’ve probably seen people bite their tongues due to ego threat (“I don’t want to look stupid”), noise (“We can’t all talk at once.”), and conformity pressure ("Let’s all jump on the boss’s bandwagon!”). Goodbye diversity of thought, hello groupthink. These challenges are amplified for people who lack power or status: the most junior person in the room, the sole woman of color in a team of bearded white dudes, the introvert drowning in a sea of extraverts.

To unearth the hidden potential in teams, instead of brainstorming, we’re better off shifting to a process called “brainwriting.” The initial steps are solo. You start by asking everyone to generate ideas separately. Next, you pool them and share them anonymously among the group. To preserve independent judgment, each member evaluates them on their own. Only then does the team come together to select and refine the most promising options. By developing and assessing ideas individually before choosing and elaborating them, teams can surface and advance possi­bilities that might not get attention otherwise.

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For instance, Dow Chemical invited people to enter an innovation tournament to save energy and reduce waste. They invited any proposals that cost no more than $200,000 and had the potential to pay for themselves within a year—and invested in the most promising ones. Over the next decade, they bet on 575 ideas that saved the company an average of $110 million per year.

Another example of great brainwriting was in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile. With time of the essence, the rescue team didn’t hold long brainstorming sessions. They established a global brainwriting system to crowdsource independent ideas. An entrepreneur pitched a tiny plastic telephone that ended up becoming the sole means of communicating with the miners. And the specialized drill that ultimately made it possible to save the miners was suggested by a 24-year-old engineer.

Research by organizational behavior scholar Anita Woolley and her colleagues helps to explain why this method works. They find that a key to collective intelligence is balanced participation.  In brainstorming meetings, it’s too easy for participation to become lopsided in favor of the biggest egos, the loudest voices, and the most powerful people. The brainwriting process makes sure that all ideas are brought to the table and all voices are brought into the conversation. The goal isn’t to be the smartest person in the room—it’s to make the room smarter.

Collective intelligence begins with individual creativity. But it doesn’t end there. Individuals produce a greater volume and variety of novel ideas when they work alone. That means that they come up with more brilliant ideas than groups—but also more terrible ideas than groups. It takes collective judgment to find the signal in the noise and bring the best ideas to fruition.

From HIDDEN POTENTIAL by Adam Grant, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Grant.

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