Brainstorms: Are they really as effective as you think?

In many corporate cultures, and especially in creative industries like PR and marketing, brainstorms are the industry standard for generating new ideas. From client kick-off campaigns to new product launches, brainstorms have traditionally been considered the easiest and most efficient way to get a team’s creative juices flowing and generate the most unique ideas. But what if we told you that was false? What if we told you brainstorms don’t work (and we have research to prove it)?

In a landmark paper by Stylianos Kavadias and Svenja Sommer titled “The Effects of Problem Structure and Team Diversity on Brainstorming Effectiveness“, researchers found that brainstorms are not always the best way to generate ideas. In fact, in most scenarios, companies would be better off having employees generate ideas individually, rather than in a group setting.

Before we explain, it is important to understand some brainstorm terminology. We’ve all been a part of unproductive brainstorms – with one person who won’t stop talking, another person scared to speak up because their boss was in the room, and others who just sit back and get credit for attending while never offering any ideas of their own. In the research world, these three flaws are defined as production blocking, evaluation apprehension and free riding:

  • Production blocking: when one person is speaking, others may forget ideas while listening and understanding what is being said
  • Evaluation apprehension: when people are hesitant to put forth ideas in fear of being judged by peers
  • Free riding: domineering speakers in the room give others less incentive to participate

In an effort to determine the most effective structure for problem-solving, researchers compared idea generation results of brainstorming groups and individuals (based on quality of ideas, not number of ideas generated). Their results were defined by two metrics: cognitive diversity and problem complexity.

Traditionally speaking, one perceived “pro” to brainstorms is the gathering of people from diverse backgrounds and with varying knowledge bases that can offer differing perspectives on a problem and its solution. If one person in your group does not come from a traditional PR background (let’s say they previously worked in corporate marketing for a Fortune 500 company), that group now has higher cognitive diversity because of the varying past experiences that may offer a different perspective.

Problem complexity is defined by two abstract ideas: the starting point where the eventual idea will spur from and the process by which participants get from the starting point to the eventual idea.

Kavadias and Sommer found that in scenarios where the problem had very low or very high problem complexity, along with very high or very low cognitive diversity (required input from only one expertise OR a vast amount of expertise in varying subjects with uncorrelated solutions), individual idea generation performed best. Individual idea generation eliminates production blocking entirely and greatly diminishes evaluation apprehension. The quality of ideas also improves significantly in individuals because of the way they can handle problem complexity. If an individual is given a particular starting point, the process by which they get to the new ideas will be based on the best possible solution. In a brainstorm group, the process gets muddled with competing ideas, rather than moving forward from one good idea to a better idea.

This chart demonstrates how evaluation apprehension stifles idea generation and the overall quality of ideas presented. You can also see that the more complex the problem, the higher the performance of individuals (“Nominal Groups”) over brainstorm groups (light gray).

The only time brainstorms outperformed individual idea generation was when problems had moderate complexity and required moderate team diversity (i.e., required input from a few different functional areas). In short, the more complex the problem, the smaller the chance your team will benefit from a brainstorm.

So should you stop brainstorming?

Instead of jumping into a brainstorm next time you’re looking for a few new ideas, take a deeper look at the problem at hand to see if a brainstorm is really the most effective way for your team to generate ideas with the resources available to you. Determine your problem’s complexity and the resources you have, and consider using a different brainstorming process. Instead of doing idea generation in the brainstorm, have your team generate ideas on their own and use the group setting to do idea selection, or choosing the best of all ideas. You may be pleasantly surprised at the level of ideas your team can come up with when everyone has an equal chance to contribute!

Tori Sabourin
Marketing Coordinator


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