Don’t Forget: Brainstorming Works!

Newsweek magazine recently published a column entitled, "Forget Brainstorming," in which it takes the position that small-group brainstorming doesn't work very well. According to Jonathan Vehar, Newsweek liberally misinterpreted research data to come to this dramatic and misleading conclusion. Here is Jonathan's detailed rebuttal of the Newsweek article.

A rebuttal to the article “Forget Brainstorming,” which appeared in the July 19, 2010 issue of Newsweek magazine

Thanks, Newsweek magazine, for perpetrating one of the biggest research myths since the Loch Ness Monster. Years of research and practice shows that brainstorming works – like any tool – when used properly.

We appreciate that the author’s main article, “The Creativity Crisis” may well have lit a spark under the collective butt of America and may indeed reignite imagination in the spirit of Alex Osborn who coined the term brainstorming and democratized creativity around the world.

Unfortunately, the article also gives a false impression about brainstorming.  A cursory reading of the 1958 Yale study shows that it does not disprove the effectiveness of brainstorming since the question of the research was, “does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking.”

In other words, is it better to brainstorm in a very small group or to brainstorm alone? Either way, they were testing brainstorming, and they found that brainstorming works to generate a high number of useful ideas.

The research concluded that for some things brainstorming alone works better, and by other measures (e.g. uniqueness of ideas) brainstorming in a small group works better.  However, contrary to the Newsweek article, the study absolutely does not say “Forget Brainstorming,” nor does it say that “brainstorming doesn’t work” or that “the technique reduces a team’s creative output!”

While we know from subsequent correspondence with the authors that they take their research seriously, it unfortunately does not show up in their treatment of brainstorming in Newsweek.  This is unfortunate, since their article in the same issue, “The Creativity Crisis” was an eloquent call-t0-arms for those of us who know that creativity is important to the future success of our children and our nation.

As Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming said in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination, “group brainstorming is recommended solely as a SUPPLEMENT to individual ideation” (p. 142, emphasis mine). In his book he spoke of the value of generating ideas as an individual, in pairs and in small groups of up to 12 people. By contrast, the Yale study only evaluates individuals and groups of four people, while acknowledging that “Osborn suggests that the optimum size for a brainstorming group is between five and ten.” (p. 47)

Certainly the Yale research was flawed because it didn’t test group brainstorming using Osborn’s description of Brainstorming (e.g. use of a trained facilitator, providing additional concepts to stimulate new ideas, working with appropriate group size, enforcement of all guidelines, etc.).  Regardless of methodology, the study concluded that brainstorming works better when working alone.  So why would you forget it based on one flawed and widely misrepresented study? Use research wisely.

According to research by Brian Hartman, there have been over 250 studies that evaluate the effectiveness of brainstorming. Unfortunately, several of them use the same misguided approach that the Yale study did, which is to say that they don’t use a trained facilitator to direct the group. Brainstorming is a specific tool with specific guidelines (defer judgment, etc.) that are enforced by a facilitator who guides the group’s thinking.

What many people mistakenly call “brainstorming” is in fact just “a bunch of people sitting around firing off and shooting down ideas.” Let’s call that “skeet-shooting.” And on that we can agree: working individually will work better than skeet-shooting in a group.

Since the authors were quick to disprove half of the techniques used to spur creativity, the appropriate question should not be, “are they good?” but rather, “when are they good?”  Is a hammer a good tool? It is when it is used to drive nails, but not when it is used to change channels of your television or to change a diaper.

The leading academic institution that has been studying what works and when is the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.  One of their faculty found that groups that were TRAINED in the guidelines of brainstorming generated two-and-a-half times more ideas than untrained groups, which resulted in (and this is the important part) two-and-a-half times more GOOD ideas, as well as a similar proportion of bad ideas.  This is but one of a stack of research studies proving that when properly used, like a hammer, Brainstorming works. Exceedingly well.

However, when people get together and skeet-shoot, blamestorm, or clobberate, they are not brainstorming, and accordingly, their results will suffer.  Perhaps common incorrect usage of the term “brainstorming” has confused the issue, but just because I call my hammer a “diaper changer,” doesn’t mean I should say it doesn’t work. It just means I’m using it incorrectly. Words mean something.  Let’s use them properly.

Jonathan Vehar is the president and cofounder of New & Improved, LLC where he works with organizations to create teams who can work together productively to create innovation.


Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied Imagination (3rd ed.). Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press.

Firestien, R.L. & McCowan, R.J. (1988). Creative Problem Solving and Communication Behaviors in Small Groups.  Creativity Research Journal, 1 (1). 106-114.

Firestien, R.L. (1990). Effects of Creative Problem Solving on Communication Behaviors in Small Groups. Small Group Research, 21 (4). 507-521.

Taylor, D.W., Berry, P.C., & Block, C.H. (1958).  Does Group Participation When using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking. Administrative Science Quarterly, 3(1), 23-47.

  • joeyoungblood

    You clearly didn’t read this research at all. The 1958 experiment states in it’s discussion at the end “it must be concluded that group participation when using brainstorming inhibits creative thinking.” going on to discuss further research that needs to be (and has now been) done.

    Later research by Rex Jung, Paul Paulus, etc.. has shown why that is and provided whys to come up with creative ideas that are high quality without relying on brainstorming as the technique to be used.