Brainstorming Does Not Work

Why people who brainstorm are wasting their time.

Kevin Ashton
Galleys
Published in
4 min readApr 17, 2015

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Brainstorming was invented by advertising executive Alex Osborn in 1939 and first published in 1942 in his book How to Think Up. This is a typical description, from James Manktelow, founder and CEO of MindTools, a company that promotes brainstorming as a way to “develop creative solutions to business problems”:

Brainstorming is often used in a business setting to encourage teams to come up with original ideas. It’s a freewheeling meeting format, in which the leader sets out the problem that needs to be solved. Participants then suggest ideas for solving the problem, and build on ideas suggested by others. A firm rule is that ideas must not be criticized — they can be completely wacky and way out. This frees people up to explore ideas creatively and break out of established thinking patterns. As well as generating some great solutions to specific problems, brainstorming can be a lot of fun.

Osborn claimed significant success for his technique. As one example of brainstorming’s effectiveness, he cited a group of United States Treasury employees who came up with 103 ideas for selling savings bonds in forty minutes. Corporations and institutions including DuPont, IBM, and the United States government soon adopted brainstorming. By the end of the twentieth century, its origins forgotten, brainstorming had become a reflex approach to creating in many organizations and had entered the jargon of business as both a noun and a verb. It is now so common that few people question it. Everybody brainstorms; therefore, brainstorming is good. But does it work?

Claims about the success of brainstorming rest on easily tested assumptions. One assumption is that groups produce more ideas than individuals. Researchers in Minnesota tested this with scientists and advertising executives from the 3M Company. Half the subjects worked in groups of four. The other half worked alone, and then their results were randomly combined as if they had worked in a group, with duplicate ideas counted only once. In every case, four people working individually generated between 30 to 40 percent more ideas than four people working in a group. Their results were of a higher quality, too: independent judges assessed the work and found that the individuals…

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Kevin Ashton
Galleys

Called a thing the Internet of Things. Wrote How to Fly a Horse—The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, available at http://amzn.to/1llqnbc