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Susan Robertson

NYT Groupthink Rebuttal: Effective Brainstorming Works

Posted by Susan Robertson

If you happened to read the opinion piece published on Sunday, January 13, in The New York Times entitled "The Rise of the New Groupthink" by Susan Cain, you may be wondering about the value of brainstorming.  If it’s as useless as the author claims, why is it so popular?  Should we continue doing it?  The short answer is that the article is ill-informed and misleading.  Brainstorming is quite useful when done well. 

  • Is it true that both individual and group efforts are required for success?  Yes, of course.  And the author acknowledges it early in the article.  Then she spends the bulk of the article essentially negating her own statement, and concluding that group brainstorming is useless.
  • Is group brainstorming effective for generating creative, unique ideas?  Yes, very.  If it’s done correctly.  Cain makes no differentiation between sessions run well and sessions run poorly.
  • Is the way you’re doing it in your organization effective?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It depends on how you’re doing it, who’s leading it and how, and whether the group is trained in, and following the rules of, brainstorming.

For those who know that “brainstorming” is actually just one specific technique within a multitude of idea generation methods, forgive me the short cut.  Most people use the term “brainstorming” as a catch-all for all these techniques, and that’s how I’m using it here.

Is it true that both individual and group efforts are required for success?

One of the rules for effective brainstorming is that participants should do preparation work in advance—individual brainstorming, if you will.  That obviously also requires that the participants receive and understand the objective in advance, and spend some time exploring and thinking about the topic before they arrive at the session.  

And, obviously, there’s additional individual work that needs to happen after the brainstorming.  Not everything is most effectively done in a group.  But the exchange of ideas, the stimulus provided by other smart people, and the diverse knowledge, experience, and expertise each individual brings to a brainstorming contributes to getting more ideas—and more unique ideas—during the session.  Author Andrew Hargadon’s book, How Breakthroughs Happen; the Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, as well as his article, “Group Cognition and Creativity in Organizations” both support how these factors do effectively generate creative solutions. 

Ms. Cain attempts to prove individuals are more creative than groups by arguing that people don’t find open plan offices effective, and that an overabundance of meetings gets in the way of creative work.  She states, “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”  I’m sure that’s probably true; I’ve worked in open plan offices and in companies with an over-reliance on meetings and I’ve experienced the issues. 

However, this argument is about interruptions and distractions that get in the way of focusing on the task.  Not about creativity. Interruptions and distractions inhibit all kinds of work output—whether you consider it to be creative or not.  Also, she fails to mention that groups would have the same problem.  If a group was trying to generate creative ideas and was constantly interrupted, or taken off task by distractions, it would be equally hampered and unsuccessful.  Using this line of reasoning—as an argument to prove that individual creativity trumps group creativity—simply makes no sense.

Is group brainstorming effective for generating creative, unique ideas? 

Ms. Cain claims that “decades of research” proves it isn’t.  She’s made several critical omissions and errors in her recital of the research that are important to note, and show her conclusions to be flawed.

She has omitted lots of other research with the opposite conclusion.  I don’t know if she is unaware of the other research, or has chosen to ignore it, but her review of the research is rather negligent and results in her portraying a false picture.  In published reports, Hargadon and others have shown that group brainstorming can be very effective.

From the research she has cited, she has only extracted sound bites, taken out of context.  Since she doesn’t say specifically what sources she’s using, I’ve had to make an educated guess on where she got her information.  I’ve surmised, based on what she says and the quotes she’s used, that she has nearly exclusively used a single article entitled, “The Brainstorming Myth” by Adrian Furnham.  While Furnham’s original article is far from a glowing endorsement for brainstorming, it’s a more balanced treatment than Cain’s.

At the end of his article, Furnham concludes that brainstorming sessions are likely not effective “as they are casually run in most firms.”  This speaks to my earlier point that they have to be done correctly to be effective.  But it’s not an indictment of all brainstorming, regardless of whether or not it is done appropriately.

Cain lists potential issues with group brainstorming that can be barriers, but fails to mention that skilled facilitators can—and do—help the group overcome these barriers.  Furnham notes, but Cain ignores, other research that proves that sessions run by skilled facilitators are significantly more effective than both individual efforts and sessions run by unskilled facilitators. 

One of the main research studies relied on in Furnham’s original article was a 1958 study by Taylor et al, which compared the count of ideas produced in group brainstorming to the count of ideas produced by the same number of individuals working alone.  In that study, as cited in Furnham’s article, the total number produced by the individuals exceeded the number produced by the group, leading to the conclusion that groups are not more effective than individuals.  However, it’s important to note:

  • The facilitators for the brainstorming sessions were NOT skilled.  They were graduate students with virtually no training or experience in facilitation.  So the above-mentioned problems that groups can face were probably not overcome by the facilitators, which likely suppressed the number of ideas produced by the groups. 
  • All the participants, including the individuals, were trained in brainstorming rules and techniques.  So the output of the individuals was likely raised by this training.
  • The resulting measure was likely an artificially high output for individuals, relative to the typical person working alone in their office today.  And it was also likely an artificially low output for the groups, relative to brainstorming groups run by a skilled facilitator.

Is the way you’re doing brainstorming in your organization effective? 

If you’re following the rules of brainstorming, and the sessions are run by an experienced facilitator, it likely is.  If you’re doing it casually, without guidelines, and the sessions are run by people without knowledge of how to do it well, it may not be as efficient at generating creative solutions as it could be. 

However, even if you’re not doing it perfectly, there are significant benefits gained by the group work that may well outweigh the loss in efficiency.  Team bonding, knowledge transfer, buy-in for the results, and commitment to the objective can all be supported by working with a group, regardless of whether or not the brainstorming session was the height of efficiency.

How can you do it better?

Find or develop an experienced facilitator, train the group on how to brainstorm, and then follow the 10 Rules for Brainstorming Success.


Susan Robertson is the Vice President of Business Development at Ideas To Go. She facilitates customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries.

©2012 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

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