It turns out that brainstorming doesn't work.
This favorite approach of countless meetings rests on the generous idea that encouraging people to think freely without fear of criticism will liberate their creativity. The problem is that this idea, stated this baldly, is mistaken.
In fact, according to Jonah Lehrer, in his extremely interesting article "Groupthink" (The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2012, at 22-27), brainstorming produces fewer ideas than the same number of people would generate if each worked alone.
This, incidentally, is not an argument against "crowdsourcing" -- even if people actually performed best alone, pooling many people's individual insights might well produce a greater whole than any one person, however talented, could produce on his or her own. That's what a psychologist named Keith Sawyer, whom Lehrer quotes (at 23), seems to confirm when he says that "[d]ecades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."
Lehrer does not say whether people ever are more creative in groups than individually. He does say, however, that people in our world have to do a lot of work in groups, because so much of what we do today requires more expertise than any one person can possess.
So what produces ideas in groups? The answer, apparently, is challenge and critique. "Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive," says Charlan Nemeth, another psychologist quoted by Lehrer (at 24). We aren't made to be entirely nice.
But we all know that criticism can be devastating. What distinguishes helpful criticism from unhelpful? That point the article doesn't altogether resolve, but here's what seems to be the answer: we need critique to be modulated by personal connections that are significant but not overpowering.
Actually, even this formulation may overstate the role of "critique." The studies Lehrer describes seem to me (based just on his descriptions, at 24) to suggest that "challenge" may be a better word for what's needed -- an encounter with alternative views. That encounter might not take the form of critique, as long as group members actually engage with views other than their own. What may be happening in brainstorming is that the injunction against critique is felt as a directive just not to "engage" with other group members" ideas.
The need for modulated engagement with others' ideas seems to be why, as Lehrer (24-25) reports a study of Broadway shows revealed, groups composed entirely of people who are longtime colleagues, or of people who don't know each other well at all, may be less productive than those whose members have mixed degrees of closeness with each other. It may also be why buildings designed so that otherwise unconnected colleagues tend to just run into each other may be breeding grounds of innovation (Lehrer cites striking examples of this as well, at 25-27).
I do still wonder about the finding that brainstorming is less productive than working alone. Why would brainstorming actually diminish creativity? Perhaps it's because when we're alone we are harder on our own ideas -- hence more likely to come up with better ones -- than we are in a group committed to "no criticism." Perhaps that's not just because criticism seems out of style in the group but also because the group ethos congratulates all the members too readily, leading to unjustified feelings of productivity. Or perhaps it's because a group with no debate gets boring pretty fast.
Again, we're not entirely nice.
Why, then, does brainstorming have such a good reputation? One reason, at least in law schools, is that the anti-critique ethos intersects with a wider skepticism about the male-dominated, competitive, even humiliating style of Socratic classrooms of a generation or two ago.
But no matter how appealing its ideology is, a process that lots of people engage in with limited results ought to gradually lose its attraction. I suspect the reason brainstorming hasn't fallen into disuse is that it's rarely the only technique groups employ. If a no-critique hour is followed by dissection of the newly emerged ideas, perhaps the net result is better than if critique went on all the time. In fact, even if brainstorming has no intrinsic value, it may be a useful step in a group effort just because it is a change of pace. And it may be that even though most people don't actually become more creative in brainstorming sessions, some people do. Then putting some time into this process is a way. to tap the ideas that those group members will have; the critiquers can resume their favored approach soon enough.
But I do still wonder -- having been in quite a few groups that employed brainstorming -- why didn't we learn about this social science long ago? Our ignorance may not have hurt us, since we probably were employing brainstorming as one tool among many. But it's unsettling to learn how little we knew about a process we quite eagerly employed. It's proof, at any rate, of the importance of not taking things for granted.