Everything you think you know about brainstorming is wrong

The spontaneous nature of a group brainstorming session feels productive and valuable.

However, recent studies show that  the most common method is also the least effective, Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing and founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program, writes for the Harvard Business Review.

In the traditional method of brainstorming, a group of people sit down at the same time, spend a few minutes throwing out random ideas, and avoid criticizing ideas at first.

This approach was created by Alex Osborn in the 1950s. He intended for the process to help people build upon the ideas of others.

But several studies have shown that this method doesn't work, Markman writes. Osborn brainstorming groups tend to generate fewer ideas and lower quality ideas than individuals working alone.

One reason the method tends to fail is that people in the group tend to follow each other: when one person proposes an idea, everyone else starts to think about the problem in the exact same way. Another common problem is that some participants will get impatient, itching to make a decision and move on. They might push the group to end the brainstorming session prematurely.

Instead, Markman recommends using a brainstorming method that allows groups to reap the benefits of both individual and group work, while also forcing the group to dedicate adequate time to brainstorming.

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For example, assemble your group, but ask everyone to start off by sitting quietly and writing down three ideas on a piece of paper. Then ask everyone to pass their papers to their neighbors, who build on the original with new suggestions. Keep passing until every person has seen every paper and had the opportunity to respond to every original suggestion.

Another idea is to encourage people to draw pictures of their ideas while brainstorming. Markman suggests that this has several benefits, such as encouraging people to think concretely about their ideas, activating more of the brain for generating ideas, and offering a better way to share processes or spatial relationships.

Don't worry about being a Picasso, because Markman writes that even the misinterpretation of a drawing can give people a new idea.

Brainstorming sessions can be exciting. But in order to produce strong ideas and not just create a competition to see who is the most extroverted, Markman encourages you to try a new approach to brainstorming (Markman, Harvard Business School, 5/18). 

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