Brainstorming: You’re Doing it Wrong

If it makes you feel better… I was doing it wrong, too.

If you want a ton of really great ideas, cancel your upcoming brainstorming session. According to several research studies, brainstorming in a group actually creates fewer good ideas.

Wait. People make a living by conducting research about brainstorming? How do I get that job?

If you need a list of ideas, conduct a virtual brainstorm

In the research studies detailed in Keith Sawyer’s book “Group Genius: The Power of Collaboration,” it’s actually better to have each person brainstorm by themselves. Sawyer found that “groups typically generate half as many ideas as the pooled ideas of the solitary individuals.”

Crazy, huh?

Instead of getting a big group of people together, set up a centralized brainstorming destination, such as Google Drive. Using a collaborative environment like this — participants can still see and feed off each other’s ideas — but they will generate more and better ideas than if they were together.

Not everyone can flourish in a large, noisy group. Some people are shy. Some fear that their ideas aren’t good enough. Others need time to research and quiet time to think. And then there are those who simply dislike brainstorming.

In researching this topic, I asked several colleagues about their attitude toward brainstorming. “Being put on the spot” was the most popular reason for being adverse to brainstorm sessions.

If you need to solve problems, conduct an in-person brainstorm

Per Sawyer’s book, in-person brainstorming is best suited for problem-solving and sketching / visualizing ideas (e.g., user flows, systems).

How do we drive more incremental sales from our secondary markets?

How could we reduce talk time in our call center without sacrificing conversions?

How can we redesign the layout to get more customers flowing through our entire store?

In these brainstorming scenarios, he recommends:

  1. Keep the number of participants to a minimum.
  2. Do not mix senior-level with junior-level team members; put them in their own groups.
  3. Mix up the brainstorming team by rotating in a few new faces each time.
  4. Never, ever invite the boss.

My virtual brainstorming experience

So I tested this “virtual brainstorming idea” myself in a less-than-scientific way. With my team of 11 peeps (of which 5 contributed), we brainstormed 52 ways to improve a particular website. We used Basecamp to collect our ideas, share links, and converse.

I’m fairly certain we didn’t spend a collective 11 hours creating that list of 52 (the equivalent “billable” hours). The list of ideas felt exhaustive — 52 does sound like more ideas than what would’ve been generated in a 1-hour session, but then again, not everyone participated in the virtual session.

Was it a success? I’m not sure; I didn’t run a control group.

As someone who actually loves brainstorming ideas, I found the experience to be just as enjoyable. I would definitely try it again.

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is a CX insights leader, UX researcher, and strategist in Minneapolis. She helps organizations drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. She never misses the Minnesota State Fair and loves dark chocolate mochas, kayaking, escape rooms, and planning elaborate treasure hunts for her children.