Why does brainstorming remain so popular despite there being little evidence that it actually works?
Projects are often beset with problems. One of the things that sets good project managers apart is their ability to tackle problems in a methodical, creative and insightful way. As a project manager who likes to embrace challenges, I am often frustrated by the number of colleagues and clients who feel the need to convene a committee meeting every time a new problem raises its head. But I didn’t always feel this way, like many people, I used to think that problem-solving in a group was a better way of arriving at the optimum solution. After all, many hands make light work, as they say. Though recently I have been more inclined to believe that it’s more a case of too many cooks spoil the broth.
‘No one takes a decision on their own unless it’s impossible to form a committee’
In his 1948 book Your Creative Power, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn first set out the ideas for group-thinking sessions. He outlined his ideas in a chapter titled ‘How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas’ a process that would later become known as Brainstorming. Osborn’s key idea was to invite a group to contribute any and every idea that they could think of, irrespective of how unconventional it might be. He advised that the group should defer judgement on any idea that they might initially think was too wild, and instead give the idea an opportunity to be developed and refined by all members of the team.
The idea of brainstorming for ideas is an attractive one. It seems feasible, or perhaps even probable, that the more people involved in the search for a solution, the more likely that the optimum solution will be found. However, more recent research suggests that this might not be the case, and that individuals could be capable of arriving at more and better solutions to a given problem. In their paper Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe reviewed the results of 22 studies which showed that group brainstorming consistently produced fewer ideas than did individuals working on their own.
So why are we inclined to choose brainstorming as the ‘go to’ methodology for solving project and business problems? On the face of it, there do seem to be several advantages to the approach: different members of the team will bring different skills and experiences and, as no one can be expected to be an expert on everything, this should be a good way to cross-pollinate ideas. There is also a sense of comfort in being part of a group, the feeling of a burden being shared. Besides, it’s fun to work together towards a common aim, and the sense of camaraderie when a solution is eventually arrived at can be both exciting and gratifying. It seems counter- intuitive that the research should show this method as being less effective, so what actually happens when we brainstorm and why does it so often lead to fewer and/or inferior solutions?
The brainstorming meeting
I had a client once who loved to organise brainstorming meetings. He used them whenever the business was faced with a complex or important decision. As CEO of the company, his preferred approach was to assemble a cross-departmental, multi-functional team of around 20 people and remove them from the company’s site, usually to a country hotel for a day or sometimes longer.
On one such occasion I was invited to speak to a high-powered team of executives about the fundamentals of project management in order that they could better understand the work that their various product development teams were undertaking. Following my presentation, the executive team (which included several main board members) brainstormed alongside engineers, product directors, project managers, heads of marketing and finance executives. Every aspect of the launch of a new product was discussed from the sourcing of components to the optimum quality assurance policy, from the content of the launch marketing materials to the channel fulfilment strategy. Everyone had their say. People even spoke up about aspects of the product launch that they knew little about; finance specialists opined on the benefits of outsourced manufacturing, procurement specialists ventured forth about what the marketing approach should be and the engineering representatives shared their views on how the various stages of development ought to be funded.
The brainstorming session was proclaimed a great success. At the end of the day spirits were high and almost everyone agreed that much had been accomplished. Things had been thrashed out, and no stone had been left unturned. It seemed inevitable that the success of the new product introduction would be a foregone conclusion. The CEO was delighted with the outcome and took the entire team, including me, out to dinner at a splendid restaurant.
It was several weeks before the actual outcomes of the meeting began to manifest themselves. As the agreed milestones started to loom it became apparent that very little was actually being achieved and a that progress was painfully slow. Eventually it began to occur to the team that much of the agreed timescale was unachievable. As time progressed it became obvious that the costing budgets were over-optimistic, the sales forecasts were grossly ambitious and that inadequate provision had been made for testing, debugging and rework. The project inevitably stalled, heading inexorably over-budget and overdue.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that much of what had gone on during the brainstorming was theatre. Executives, mindful that the CEO was watching their performance, had concentrated on their own behaviour, on appearing to look engaged and creative. Substance was replaced by showboating. The ideas discussed were broad-brushed, blue-sky thinking. They all sounded plausible and exciting but were light on detail. The team, which actually comprised many intelligent and competent executives, was caught up in a wave of positivity. No one challenged the ideas and even the obviously bad ones were greeted with much enthusiasm.
After a while, a curious phenomenon started to manifest itself – one or two members of the team started to ‘police’ the tone of the meeting. Anyone adopting a critical tone was censured and the language used soon became universally upbeat, affirmative and complementary. Without it becoming apparent the brainstorming session had disintegrated and reformed into a kind of cheerleading exercise. Hardly anyone was thinking critically any longer, and the ability of the team to rationally analyze the various proposals on the table had mostly evaporated. All that was left was a cloistered feeling of a good will and a table full of unchallenged ‘great ideas’.
Furthermore, dissenters, the few who had spoken up against some of the overly ambitious or unrealistic decisions, were marginalised, not just in the meeting itself but also in subsequent sessions and discussions. They were seen as naysayers, as being overly-negative, or worse, not team players. One engineer who had suggested that more time was required to test certain novel features of the product was described as having a “can’t do attitude” when what was needed were “can do” people. The dissenters became what behavioural psychologists refer to as an ‘outgroup’.
The meeting described above is an almost text-book example of how brainstorming can go wrong.
A number of lessons can be learned from the story:
What seemed to emerge from this particular brainstorming meeting was an example of what psychologists call Groupthink. Much of the pioneering work on the phenomenon of Groupthink was carried out in the 1970s by researcher Irving Janis at Yale. Irving started his career in the US Army studying military morale and other factors that affected decision making. He was particularly interested in the conditions that gave rise to irrational complacency, apathy, hopelessness and rigidity. He went on to write that;
‘The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups’
Having experienced many subsequent brainstorming meetings in numerous and diverse projects and situations, I am left thinking that this technique, when conducted under the leadership of an effective (but not domineering) chairperson, can be a good way to encourage novel and imaginative ideas. Particularly when used in pursuit of new concepts in a creative context (marketing, advertising, promotional ideas etc.) brainstorming can provide a great way to initiate several threads of thinking for further development. But when there are specific problems to be resolved that require more immediate resolutions then the brainstorming process may not be the right one, especially if there is significant extra workload or the potential for additional costs and disruption contingent on the outcome. More importantly, if the stakes are high then there is a good chance that the members of the team will perceive there to be risk to their status in the group and standing in the business. In these circumstances individuals will seek shelter and protection in the ‘herd’, this best being achieved – in their minds – by following the leader, however unlikely that particular course is to succeed.
Talking about brainstorming
“I’m not going to convene a meeting to discuss this issue because it’s apparent we have the expertise, experience and the authority to resolve it ourselves.”
“We need a stimulate creativity and the best outcome would be a range of different ideas and concepts for us to go away and consider at our leisure. It seems that a brainstorming session would be the best way forward.”
“As CEO I’ve called this brainstorming meeting because I’m not sure on the best solution to the problem we’re facing, so I’d like to start by encouraging everyone to challenge the ideas I’m going to put forward. If you think they’re unworkable I’d really appreciate it if you said so and helped me to understand why.”
“I’m going to resist the brainstorming route because it’s very likely that we’ll spend too much lot of time trying to justify the work that our departments have already done.”
“Let’s make sure we invite Rita to the brainstorming meeting, her opinions are usually insightful and she is not afraid to stand up and say something won’t work if that’s how she sees it.”
The Irrational Project Manager