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Make the most of your brainstorming

3 min read


This guest post is by Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology. Follow him on Twitter at @abmarkman.

There are lots of reasons to get people together in groups to generate new ideas. It can create feelings of team cohesion, and it increases commitment to the ideas, because everyone feels like they had a role in shaping an organization’s new directions. Of course, the most important reason that we like brainstorming sessions is that they provide an opportunity to generate high-quality ideas.

It may come as a surprise that the word brainstorming comes from a specific technique for idea generation developed by Alex Osborn in the 1950s. He encouraged people to focus on coming up with as many ideas as possible without considering constraints, to welcome new ideas, to withhold criticism of those ideas, and to be open to unusual suggestions.

These basic tenets are incorporated (at least implicitly) in the way many of us organize groups to generate ideas. Unfortunately, there is a lot of research that suggests that this kind of brainstorming is deeply flawed. Groups using this intuitively sensible method come up with fewer ideas (and fewer really good ideas) than the group members would create if they worked alone.

Why does that happen? When you get together in a group, the first people who speak have a huge influence on what everyone else thinks about. So, those initial ideas constrain the range of issues people consider during brainstorming. In addition, there are social factors that may limit the ideas people express. Group members may wait for high-status members to start the discussion.

Fortunately, there are a number of suggestions for improving brainstorming that have been validated in experiments. Some of these studies have been done in my lab. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Before you get together as a group, have each member write down as many ideas as they can. Each idea should be on a separate sheet of paper, and those sheets shouldn’t have any identifying marks. That way, nobody knows who originated a particular idea.
  • Encourage group members to write out their ideas, but also to draw sketches and diagrams. This combination of words and pictures allows people to express things that might be hard to say with words alone.
  • When you do get together, start by taking the sheets of paper and passing the ideas around the room. Let each group member build on the ideas. Have everyone look for common themes that are emerging across the many ideas.
  • Start the group discussion only after you have gone through this whole process. Focus the group discussion on the ideas that people think are most promising.
  • Don’t let the excitement of the group meeting cause you to settle too quickly on a particular idea. After you figure out the most promising directions, let them sit for a day or too and see if you are still as energized about them. Separate the intrinsic enjoyment of working with a group from the evaluation of the new concepts.

These suggestions are easy to implement, and they will increase the number of ideas that your team generates and improve the quality of those ideas. Because the group ends the process by talking about those ideas, you still get all of the improvements in morale and buy-in that come from getting everyone involved in creating new directions.

Image credit, DaveBolton, via