Brainstorming groups still kill ideas

I was surprised to find an article in a leading innovation journal that summarized a recent research paper on brainstorming. The summary stated that in contrast to most past studies this one showed that group ideation may reduce the number of ideas but it produced some of the best ones.

Fifty years of careful experiments have shown conclusively that group brainstorming reduces

  1. the number of ideas and
  2. the average quality of ideas

generated compared with individual interviews or brainstorming. In short, group brainstorming kills ideas.

Focus groups as well … when it comes to creating or ranking ideas

I am reworking an article on customer research for innovation. The empirical evidence about the use of group methods is truly overwhelming: hundreds of studies over the past 50 years and multiple reviews and meta-analyses of the empirical results show that individual interviews or individuals brainstorming alone are superior to brainstorming groups or focus groups in generating ideas, measured by:

  1. Quantity of ideas and
  2. Average QUALITY of ideas.

The new study

Therefore I went to the new study with keen interest. It turns out that the journal was 100% wrong — the study (Girotra et. al, working paper) was fully consistent with all of the past research. (Always go to the source — don’t trust the review.) The study was interesting because it took the results several steps further.

Group methods (compared to individual ideation):

  1. Produce significantly fewer ideas
  2. Generate ideas of lower average quality
  3. Produce fewer of the very best ideas, and
  4. In addition, groups are not effective at evaluating or ranking generated ideas.

The paper found that add-on ideas building on others ideas were generally lower quality than individual ideas. In short group ideation stinks.

An earlier version of the working paper is posted at:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1082392

I will post my working paper in a future posting.

This entry was posted in Customer Research Methods, experiential innovation, Ideation and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Brainstorming groups still kill ideas

  1. Markus says:

    I’ve read a report about this. Key point is about individual flow and how the group can be limited by the pace of the slowest thinker + group distractions.

    You negate this through some very simple workshop techniques to enable individual creativity to occur in a group setting… it’s not too difficult and the added value of participation and shared learning on projects make it essential for group sessions, you can’t avoid them, so optimise them.

  2. Andre P says:

    From practice I learned that group brainstorm are a total disaster – despite all the efforts from Six Sigma & Project Mgmt training to convince us the opposite.

    A few reasons why group brainstorm crashes from observation:
    1. Less-than-prepared people have the same voice as the experts.

    Poorly constructed ideas resonates amongst the low ranks.

    2. People want patches and focus usually falls on quick fixes, not on long-term, enduring, preventive solutions.

    3. Brainstorm is associated with “Random” and “Informal” whereas many issues required “Focus” and “Methods”.

    Rarely deep insights will come out of a group of 10+ people gathered for a “random” blurbs session.

    4. Impactful ideas might be killed because of prematurely viewed as “Hard” or “Difficult to Implement”

    So WHY are Brainstorm groups still recommended?
    1. Because it feels good.
    Everyone is heard. Everyone have their say. It’s the ultimate team hug session.

    2. Because it assumes documentation.
    People take notes and people tend to remeber who-said-what.

    3. Because it gives the appearence of transparency to others
    Uper Mgmt and other peers tend not to disagree with a team resolution. The risk of being outnumbered by the masses opinion is really scary to non-experts. Proving a point is getting harder these days as information abound and people pay less attention to the critical performance elements.

    *Key question: What’s the solution?*
    I.e, How do we garner group constructive feedback while modelling services and processes?

    I have a few ideas – would love to hear more on this blog!

    great post! thanks
    Andre

  3. gschirr says:

    Group techniques continue to be oversold by consultants and moderators who profit from conducting them. I am wary of any “simple” solutions: in fact most of the “proven” alternatives, such as NGT or online brainstorming, actually take the face-to-face groupness out of the process and are really a form of individual brainstorming. Proceed with caution!

  4. Markus says:

    Six sigma focuses on efficiency and lacks creativity, I’m a designer, using design process and research to inspire ideas around the unexpected and unknown messy reality of people.

    In practical terms, post it notes and prep, combined with individual idea generation and group affinity clustering during a session and you get the best of both worlds.

    Simples.

  5. gschirr says:

    Markus:

    Your approach makes sense. Essentially you are “brainwriting” or doing individual brainstorming to come up with creative ideas and then using group affinity to disseminate and implement the ideas — taking advantage of the “illusion of group effectivity” in academic jargon.

    Key points: (1) you are generating ideas by individual brainstorming and (2) you do not need a high paid “expert moderator” for the limited purpose group portion.

    Thanks!!!

  6. Interesting article. I’m not necessarily surprised by the findings because so many brainstorms are poorly executed. Few people understand the discipline necessary to create a variety of ideas which may spark breakthrough solutions.

    But blaming the brainstorm isn’t the way to go. It’s a bit like saying since I don’t know how to drive a Formula 1 race car, I’ll be faster on my bike.

    Andre raises some great issues about why brainstorms can fail. But moving the idea generation towards more of a individual author model seems dated to me. The real magic can happen when one combines the experts with the folks who don’t have the domain knowledge.

  7. gschirr says:

    Andre does raise good ideas…I am looking forward to his promised thoughts on how to improve the process.

    You raise a good point — don’t blame brainstorming. Actually Osborn’s rules seem helpful and INDIVIDUAL brainstorming effective: the problem is in the face-to-face group dynamics.

    Thanks!

  8. I’m not an expert in brainstorming, but don’t you think that brainstorming around a blog post would be a good alternative to traditional brainstorming? It limitates physical contagion effects, and encourage to bring something new to the table.

  9. Markus says:

    Last Friday I ran a 4 hour workshop, the week before I ran a preparation workshop both with at least 8 people.

    To get the best out of individual flow and group dynamics I split people into teams and used role play, personas, storytelling, sketching and issue cards.

    To blame brainstorming groups is a bit easy, it’s all in the prep and facilitation. The reason most brainstorming sessions don’t work, is because no-one prepared for the human weaknesses that occur when groups of humans get together.

  10. Andre says:

    Greetings everyone!

    After my comment there has been invaluable.

    I agree that blaming brainstorm is premature, and some answers point in the right direction.

    My thinking is that brainstorms are valuable when there’s (1) strong facilitation skills and (2) post-session accountability. 

    Facilitation will provide the framing people need to stay connected and follow through in producing/prioritizing ideas. Accountability will ensure things gets done.

    All in all I believe that new ideas happen to single-individuals. It might get sparked by exterior elements such as environment or other enlightened individuals, but we rely on a single mind to ignite “the spark”.

    Now innovation can happen when the new idea is put in practice. Others heavily collaborate here.

    So ideation is focused on the individual and innovation on the group. Brainstorms usually favor the opposing trends.

    I would love to hear different opinions on the subject – specially when other accomplished people could root their ideas with findings, studies and experiences. Thanks so far!

  11. Remko says:

    Interesting discussion!
    In addition to Andre’s comment regarding skillful facilitation, which I agree with entirely, we need to be aware that the majority of the brainstorming research was done by investigating unfacilitated groups of students, not trained in brainstorming techniques. This, of course, will have a huge impact on the results! If you go back to, for instance the data in the Diehl and Stroebe studies, you can see that oftentimes brainstorming groups don’t come up with more than, say, 10 ideas. While, a skilled and experienced brainstorming group generates about that number of ideas a minute!
    I am not all for brainstorming. It has it’s time and place. Besides, I have come to regard these group meetings as a learning and exploration process, not necessarily as an idea production machine.
    I just think that you need to give these techniques a fair chance.

    Cheers
    Remko

  12. Nitpicker77 says:

    If brainstorming requires specialized facilitation, and the problem is groupthink and ridicule and power mismatches etc, then check out the A3 Process at Toyota – Managing to Learn, by John Shook, the first American Toyota executive in Japan. It avoids the groupthink by using rounds of one on one consultations with all the people who deal with the place where the problem being addressed resides.

    The owner of the problem consults separately with each after preparing a single double-page document (European letter size is A4, double is A3, in the USA, we’d use 11X17) discussion of the problem. When each participant has provided her views, the owner prepares a revised A3 and starts another round. The power of the power players does not influence the others.

    The owner needs training but not the whole group. Everyone can tell that their ideas have been heard so getting buy-in after 4 or 6 or 11 rounds will be easy. There is no rush to a quick fix and all the ideas get repeated hearings. Finally, it seems to work pretty well. Ask John or read his book.

  13. gschirr says:

    Dick:

    Thank you for your insight.

    I am a big believer in user insights and personal one-on-one interviews, so I will check out the procedure.

    Thanks again!!

    – Gary

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