The Stifling Power of Brainstorming


We’ve all heard about how brainstorming can help us become more creative and come up with even more brilliant ideas. But just because a concept is repeated ad infinitum doesn’t mean it’s true.

According to a recent review of more than 800 teams, brainstorming actually hurts creativity. The study revealed folks were more likely to come up with better original ideas when they were by themselves. In a group setting, brainstorming can actually harm productivity—particularly when workers are supervised or fail to achieve any significant progress quickly.

It turns out that many companies embrace brainstorming because they understand that different people have different skillsets. By bringing everyone together and having them bounce ideas off of each other, the thinking goes, the sum will be greater than the parts. Beyond that, brainstorming is viewed as a much more democratic approach to idea generation. Instead of having one person come up with every new initiative, brainstorming lets everyone on the team enjoy a sense of ownership.

But what if there’s an absolute visionary genius on your team who seems to be a never-ending source of fantastic ideas? Is it really worth opening up the floor to everyone if that person is capable of driving the team in the right direction all by themselves?

Killing Creativity

Many of today’s workers are held back by legacy managerial approaches. For decades, teams have been stuffed into meeting rooms tasked with bouncing ideas off the wall. But according to a recent study, creativity is driven by three things: expertise, the ability to use the imagination and motivation. Being forced into a room to talk about new social media approaches with a bunch of idiots isn’t exactly going to inspire the Einstein-like genius who is thinking about building entirely new systems or technologies.

How exactly does group brainstorming kill productivity? For starters, let’s say 10 coworkers are in a meeting room and they’re brainstorming about a new product or feature they want to offer users. Invariably, there will be a tendency of at least some in the group to become lazy due to the fact that they’ll expect the other members of the team to pick up their slack. Rather than opening their mouths to say something, they’re confident someone else will. When there’s a group involved, what’s the point in working (or thinking) as hard as you can? This phenomenon is known as social loafing.

Additionally, since nobody wants to be the rudest bloke in the room, it’s common courtesy to keep your mouth shut when someone else is talking. Someone’s incessant babbling could very well inspire you to come up with the greatest idea of all time. But before you’re able to share it, you have to wait for your coworker to finish telling the story you’ve heard 20 times before. By the time that person is done speaking, you may have forgotten your killer or idea, or you may be so bored that you can’t muster the energy to reveal it.

There’s also the fact that we care about what other people think of us. Imagine believing you have a fantastic idea only to share it with the group and be met with complete silence. Nobody wants their coworkers to think they’re stupid—which is why many people refuse to contribute much, if at all, in team settings. They’re afraid of being perceived as dumb.

On the flipside, group brainstorming sessions can also be affected by groupthink. We all want to fit in, after all. Maybe that super cute coworker of yours comes up with a spectacularly horrendous idea. But the person is well liked, so everyone on the team agrees it’s a fantastic idea even though it’s quite obvious your users will be upset.

Reviving Creativity

The good news is that your office doesn’t have to be stuck in the 1950s. There are a number of things you can do to encourage creativity at your company. Here are some of them:

  • Embrace remote working and flexible schedules. Inspiration strikes at odd hours. If you want your employees to reach peak creativity, let them work wherever they want to work whenever they want to work, within reason. If a marketer has a great new idea at 11 p.m., let that person start tackling work right that minute in exchange for giving them a shorter day tomorrow. Not only will employees be more creative, they’ll be more engaged.
  • Let workers pursue pet projects. Doing the same thing over and over again gets monotonous for anyone. To counter this, let employees pursue their own pet projects at work. Google famously used to let employees spend 20% of their time pursuing their own interests. In addition to letting your employees feel like they’re valued, you may also benefit from amazing ideas.
  • Design your office the right way. If employees are holed up in cubicles all day and can’t see any outside light, chances are they won’t be inspired to really stretch their imaginations. Make sure there’s a lot of natural light and plant life at your office. Also pay attention to color. Red, green and blue have been linked with creativity.
  • Let employees share ideas anonymously. Don’t force employees to share their ideas in a public setting. Your introverted employees are unlikely to be too keen on that. Get a suggestion box and let them share ideas anonymously. You’ll get at least a few extra ones that otherwise would have never seen the light of day.
  • Give team members the support they need to be creative. If you really care about creativity, you have to support it thoroughly — both the successes and failures. Employees also need to be equipped with the right tools that inspire creativity, so invest accordingly.

This is all not to say that there are no benefits to brainstorming—just that it’s considerably overrated. Lay off on the team meetings and give your employees more freedom. They’ll reward you with innovative ideas.

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