Brainstorming Sucks

We’ll get everybody together in a room. I mean everybody! The brains will be so close together they will practically be touching. Ideas will fly and ricochet off those domes like ping pong balls on amphedamines! It’ll be like The Perfect Storm for brains. A…brainstorm!
– Imbecile

No. No. No no no no no. No.


The worst thing human beings can collectively engage in is a meeting to wordsmith a document. If you see people doing that, bar the conference room door and set the building on fire. But go just a little ways down the road from that and you’ll run into the second worse thing human beings can collectively engage in - the brainstorming session.

The most pernicious aspect of the brainstorming session is that the person calling a brainstorming session thinks it’s a great idea. It’s a terrible idea. It’s a worse idea than re-releasing Titanic in 3D.

The brainstorming concept is generally attributed to an advertising executive from the 1950’s named Alex Osborn. Through the kind of rigorous scientific experimentation ad execs are famous for, Osborn concluded that people working in groups following a few brainstorming guidelines come up with twice as many ideas as people working alone. Brainstorming soon spread across organizations around the globe. Ad execs must have been held in higher esteem in the 1950’s.

Since then a great many studies on brainstorming have been conducted. Check out brainstorming on Wikipedia or Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds for a host of citations, but to summarize study after study after study:

  • People in brainstorming sessions come up with fewer ideas than people do on their own.

  • People in brainstorming sessions come up with lower quality ideas than people do on their own.

There are a number of different reasons why this happens. People think less clearly in groups. There’s social loafing, there’s diffused responsibility. Group think tends to lead to less creative ideas (and worse decisions). But the point is this: brainstorming sucks really, really hard.

Want someone to come up with more and better ideas? Buy her or him a plant and stick it on their desk. Seriously. That’s been scientifically shown to work better, and a good smelling plant can clear out a lot of nerdfunk.