Shut Up In a Brainstorm for Better Results

The effectiveness of brainstorms is challenged. A lot of them are done in the wrong way. In this post, Gijs van Wulfen suggests you should shut up in a brainstorm for better results.

The spiritual father of the brainstorming technique is the American Alex Osborn. He is also one of the founders (and the ‘O’) of advertising agency BBDO, still renowned worldwide. In 1948 he published a book called Your Creative Power. In the chapter “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas” he describes when a group works together, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” that is; “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” Two essential rules are:

  1. Defer your judgment
  2. Go for quantity

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that people are scared of saying something wrong. In a period where employees still were scared to speak up, brainstorming was experienced as revolutionary.

Since the fifties a lot of people have challenged the effectiveness of brainstorms. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, once summed up the science to conclude: “Decades 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”. Recent research of Bernard Nijstad and Wolfgang Stroebe confirmed that brainstorming in a group has two major shortcomings.

  1. Individuals often produce fewer ideas and ideas of lower quality in group settings as compared when they work alone.
  2. When people have to wait for others to complete their turn before presenting their idea, ideas are often lost.

Nijstad elaborated to say that being part of a group only gives you the illusion of group productivity. His findings show that group members are more satisfied with their performance than individuals, despite having generated fewer ideas. The group setting makes you feel more productive. This feeling is attributed to the group experiencing fewer instances in which someone is unable to generate ideas.

Why then do I recommend a two-day new product brainstorming session with fourteen participants? Luckily, brainstorming has evolved since the fifties. Back then, it was common practice that all participants could spontaneously shout out their ideas. This led to chaotic situations whereby the individual thought process was constantly interrupted. Furthermore, in large brainstorming groups most participants had to wait too long before they could unleash their ideas, which caused some ideas to vanish before anyone even had a chance to hear them.

Brainstorming this way for four rounds using different techniques usually leads to 500 – 750 ideas on the idea wall.

Being aware of the pitfalls of generating fewer ideas and lower quality ideas, I fine-tuned the way of brainstorming. The brainstorming approach I explain in my new book ‘The Innovation Expedition’ is done differently. Team members first get the opportunity to start generating new ideas in complete silence. They each write their ideas on separate post-it notes. Afterwards, everybody quickly reads their ideas out loud to the group. This has a very stimulating effect on the participants as they are encouraged to continue listening and to elaborate on their own ideas. How the participants are positioned in the room also has a stimulating effect as they are seated in a horseshoe formation (without tables) and can see each other clearly. This way, the idea of one participant is a source of inspiration for the other. Brainstorming this way for four rounds using different techniques usually leads to 500 – 750 ideas on the idea wall. The experience of sharing, selecting and drafting concrete concepts from the best ideas has a great impact on group dynamics. At the end the whole group feels ownership of the concepts. That is essential. New concepts need a lot of parents to survive a corporate culture.

By Gijs van Wulfen

About the author

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. His latest book is “The Innovation Expedition: a visual toolkit to start innovation”. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organizations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method.

Gijs is a key-note speaker at international innovation conferences, chosen by Linkedin as one of their 150 Thought Leaders and the #2 in the Top 40 Innovation Bloggers of 2012.


  1. Wikipedia
  2. The New Yorker, “GROUPTHINK: the brainstorming myth, by Jonah Lehrer, 30 January 2012.
  3. Bernard Nijstad, How the Group Affects the Mind: Effects of Communication in Idea Generating Groups, 2000.
  4. The illusion of group productivity: a reduction of failures explanation, Bernard Nijstad, Wolfgang Stroebe, Hein Lodewijkx, European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 31–48, January/February 2006

Photo: portrait of a young man covering his mouth from

  • praxis

    This is a variation nominal group technique. I do appreciate your pointing out the research of Bernard Nijstad and Wolfgang Stroebe. Thanks

  • Steve Gazzard

    Thanks for sharing this powerful facilitation technique. In particular, you’re use of different techniques/tools, used in concert, which uncover gems held by those with different thinking, learning, communication styles. Also, the use of seating arrangements can be a powerful tool. How do you feel about changing environments i.e. conference room to playground, or boardroom to kitchen?

  • R Vosari

    Understand and Recognize that Innotech and The New Directions Group developed the ideas that you are now claiming as (somehow) unique…and that was 35 years ago!