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Flawed Research on Brainstorming

I came across this informative and insightful article about brainstorming in the most recent International Association of Facilitators (IAF) Global Flipchart newsletter. They were kind enough to grant me permission to re-publish here. This is an expert summary of the original theories behind brainstorming and shows how recent research that casts a negative view on brainstorming fails to take into account some of the founding principles and practices of the idea.

 Flawed Studies: Brainstorming Revisited

Probably the most used facilitation technique in business analysis is brainstorming. Alex Osborn (no relation to Ozzy Osbourne) developed this technique over 70 years ago and facilitators still consider it one of the best techniques for eliciting creative ideas1. In summary, a group meets with a facilitator and attempts to gather as many ideas as possible to address a problem. The facilitator sets rules at the beginning of the session of which the most important is “no adverse judgment of ideas” during the session. This Osborn rule is to encourage participation. However, I recently read an article2 that challenged this rule and the technique itself. This led me to research the topic. What I found were many seriously flawed studies rather than a flawed technique.

For many years, facilitators have considered the secret of brainstorming’s success is establishing a safe environment for a group of people to express their ideas (i.e., free of criticism). Despite this, a 2003 University of California at Berkeley study3 indicated that:

• Individuals produce more and better ideas alone rather than in a group

• Debates enhance creative thinking more than “an acceptance dialogue”

What I mean by “an acceptance dialogue” is the result of the “no adverse judgment of ideas” rule promoted by Osborn.

That’s right, per the Berkeley study as well as many other follow-on studies, solo efforts trump group efforts as far as creativity is concerned and group debate stimulates more creativity than a “safe from criticism environment.” Per the Berkeley study, criticism makes individuals work together and forces the reassessment of their ideas. However, what the study omits is the time required to debate and the impact of only doing convergent thinking. Brainstorming includes both divergent and convergent thinking4; generates as many ideas as possible in a short time period and later evaluates them for implementation.

Many studies focused on brainstorming quality rather than quantity of ideas.

Individuals vs. Teams

Some great inventions have been developed by single geniuses (e.g., De Vinci, Pascal, Galileo, and Einstein). However, in recent history, more breakthroughs have come from the synergy of teams5. This trend is due to today’s complex problems requiring solutions consisting of ideas from different disciplines. Teams composed of individuals from different backgrounds are more likely to discover solutions in this modern era.

Pre-session Activity – setting up for success

To state that an individual is more creative than a group, depends on the individuals, the composition and size of the group, and the training received. For a brainstorming session, the facilitator needs to select the participants carefully and conduct some pre-session activities:

1. Invite the stakeholders, but also ask individuals outside the business domain to attend to ensure nonconformity thinking. Consider the risk involved in bringing these individuals together.

2. Prior to the session, send the participants the

  • purpose of the session – set expectation
  • problem or opportunity to address – allows for individual thinking
  • process to be used and expected results – preliminary training

 Brainstorming studies ignored the pre-session activities.

 Debate vs. Dialogue

Before we decide to drop Osborn’s “no adverse judgment” rule and allow debates, let’s review why he felt the rule was necessary. Osborn recognized that the work place can be repressive, competitive, and impolite. New ideas mean change and unfortunately, many people resist change. Many corporations recruit assertive people. Assertive folks are prone to debate (i.e., to tear apart) and dominate meetings. They focus on proposing their own ideas and evaluating others as opposed to active listening and engaging in a dialogue (i.e., exchanging ideas). Sadly, many people have forgotten what they learned in kindergarten (i.e., “how to play well with others” or in corporate vernacular, a true lack of interpersonal skills).

Osborn also understood that a person’s position on the organization chart relative to another’s causes intimidation. Title in the business world (not to mention rank in the military) often inhibits many people from participating in meetings. We may recall the validation technique – Peer Review developed at IBM. The facilitator invites only peers, no management, to these reviews to allow candid conversations between peers in an egalitarian environment.

 An Example – a no-holds-barred session

 Yes, we need rules. I remember a project manager that attempted to facilitate a brainstorming session having neither training on the technique nor on facilitation. The PM started the session without setting any rules; he simply asked for ideas concerning a business opportunity. It was a cold start; you could hear a pin drop – absolute silence. I was a participant in this meeting and offered an idea. It was met with a quick response from a manager, “That would cost a lot of money. Does anyone have any reasonable ideas?” At that point, you could have heard a feather drop in the vacuum of outer space – dead silence. There was little participation after that and a lack of follow-up by the PM after the session. Yes, we need rules and we need facilitators to establish and enforce them. Here are some examples of session rules used by various facilitators.

 • Defer judgment (use active listening)

• Be on time (respect others)

• Curtail phone/PC use (maintain focus)

• Respect the person who is speaking (don’t interrupt)

• Look at each other when speaking (make eye contact)

• Take sync points (summarize progress)

• Be open to questions at any time

• Use a process to conduct a dialogue (not a discussion) and settle issues

• Be brief and to the point – Enough, Let’s Move On (ELMO)

• Work to a consensus, but be open to compromise

 During the Brainstorming Session – doing it right

 The facilitator needs to follow the guidelines below at the beginning of a brainstorming session.

 1. Introduce yourself and your role as a facilitator

2. State meeting session objective and intent (sponsor addresses group)

3. Introduce participants, conduct ice-breaker activity, and ask for a timekeeper (set time limit)

4. Establish a Parking Lot and explain its purpose (maintain focus, but allow off topic items to be recorded for later review)

5. Explain the brainstorming process (group training)

6. Establish session rules (no adverse judgment rule), obtain everyone’s agreement, and post the rules

7. Start the session (divergent thinking)

a. Ensure use of participant’s actual words when posting ideas (promotes ownership and buy-in)

b. Ensure everyone participates via eye contact when asking for ideas

c. Ensure you maintain your neutrality (pose questions to the participants – use SCAMPER6)

d. Enforce the session rules when necessary

 Upon the conclusion of the brainstorming session, the facilitator needs to address these items.

1. Summarize results, action items and assign responsibilities

2. Review Parking Lot and assign responsibilities

3. Set expectations on documentation and any follow-up meetings (see Post-session Activities below)

4. Ask for meeting feedback (pace, process, content, time, focus)

5. Thank participants and recognize their contributions and achievement

 Most brainstorming studies ignored these guidelines.

 Post-session Activity – scrubbing the ideas

The brainstorming session is over, but the process is incomplete. Osborn knew that eventually a separate session would be needed to analyze all the ideas resulting from brainstorming. Below are the follow-on session steps.

1. Elaborate – expand each idea to ensure understanding and quality.

    • During brainstorming, the intent is to capture (without debate) as many ideas as possible within a limited period of time

2. Consolidate – combine ideas due to redundancy

3. Debate – discuss each idea, its good points and bad (convergent thinking)

4. Rate – estimate the business benefit and implementation effort

5. Select – determine which ideas to pursue per rating (possible use of an Impact/Effort Grid7 )

6. Pursue – develop a project business case and submit to portfolio management for evaluation

 Most brainstorming studies ignored the post session activities.

 Flawed Studies

I stated at the beginning of this article that many studies have results that pose some questions on the effectiveness of brainstorming. However, a review8 of several of these studies has exposed that much of the research did not actually test the brainstorming guidelines. They only focused on individual versus group problem solving performance.

 “The review of the 50 studies showed that 34 of them do not actually test the ground rules of brainstorming. The 16 studies of the 50 that did actually test the guidelines all found support for brainstorming. Results showed only seven of the 50 studies utilized a facilitator.” (Isaksen and Gaulin, 8)

“Virtually all of the brainstorming research in recent years places participants in groups where there is no attempt to actually manage or facilitate their behavior. There is no structure that is imposed, no assistance, and no aid such as a flip chart.” (Offner, Kramer, and Winter, 9)

Most brainstorming studies ignored the benefits of a facilitator.


Forget the studies. Without proper training and following guidelines, any group can misuse a technique and apparently, Osborn’s Brainstorming was misused in many of these studies. I have included in this article all the activities of the brainstorming process to highlight what was missing from these studies. As stated by Isaksen and Gaulin:

 “Simply assembling a group and then telling them to brainstorm does not work and is inconsistent with the practices suggested by Osborn. It is clear that the role of a trained group facilitator is central to having a successful brainstorming session.”

 “By and large, a majority of the brainstorming research appears to ignore the importance of this facilitator leadership role.” (Isaksen and Gaulin, 8)

 Brainstorming remains a productive technique for generating ideas in a group. It includes divergent and convergent thinking and is most effective when a facilitator plans, executes, and conducts follow-up steps per Osborn’s guidelines (see Pre-, During, and Post-Activities stated in this article).

 Note there are other creative idea techniques available to the facilitator such as the Six Thinking Hats10 and Mind Mapping11.

 Post Script

I recommend you read the entire Isaksen and Gaulin report8 for further details on these studies. The report includes Osborn’s original guidelines for brainstorming and is available on the Internet:



1. Osborn, Alex, Your Creative Power, Myers Press (March 2007)

2. Lehrer, Johah, “Group Think: The brainstorming myth,” New Yorker Magazine (January 2012)

3. Nemeth, Charlan, “The liberating role of conflict in group creativity, European Journal of Social Psychology (2004)

4. Brokaw, Leslie, “Diverge before you Converge: Tip for Creative Brainstorming,” MIT Sloan Management Review (February 2014)

5. Wuchty, Stefan, Jones, Benjamin, and Uzzi, Brian, “The Increasing Dominance of Teams in the Production of Knowledge,” Science (2007)

6. Eberle, Bob, SCAMPER: Creative Games and Activities for Imagination Development, Prufrock (July 2008)

7. http://www.innovationgames.com/impact-effort-matrix/

8. Isaksen, Scott and Gaulin, John “A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry,” Center of Studies in Creativity, Buffalo College (June 1998)

9. Offner, A. K., Kramer, T. J., and Winter, J. P., “The effects of facilitation, recording, and pauses on group brainstorming.” Small Group Research

10. de Bono, Edward, Six Thinking Hats, Bay Back Books (1988)

11. Buzan, Tony, The Mind Map Book, Plume (March 1996)


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