Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

How You Can Make Brainstorming Better

Generally brainstorming is inefficient and ineffective. The benefits, if any, tend to fall into the social category and not the creative one. New research suggests that with some tweaking we can improve the quality of ideas.

Why does brainstorming suck?

One reason is because we get stuck on the ideas of others. This is actually cognitive fixation, or the concept that, “when exposed to group members’ ideas, people focused on those and blocked other types of ideas from taking hold.”

Adding more people won’t help. Tyler Cowen mentions this in his book Discover Your Inner Economist:

the larger the group, the greater the loss of productivity. We all know that many people rely too much on the work of others and become “free riders.”

One reason is self-deception

Self-deception is one culprit for this failure of perception. When we are in groups, someone else is usually talking. We feel less pressure. We don’t feel stupid just because we are silent or devoid of new ideas. Rather the sense of continuous activity gives us the feeling of being engaged in collective discovery. If I am experiencing no revelation, well, maybe someone else is. After all, something good must be happening; why else would we all be gathered in this room? We do like being on teams, especially winning teams.

Cowen adds, “Many people, after working in groups, mistake other people’s ideas for their own. After the meeting they feel better. Furthermore, if the problem is hard, everyone can see that everyone else found it hard too; this makes us all feel better.”

If brainstorming doesn’t work, why does it persist?

Susan Cain addresses this in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

Indeed, after all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain as popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity—group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.

What can you do to improve results?

Two new tweaks promise to improve ideas: Brainwriting and Electronic Brainstorming. Fancy terms no doubt, but let’s look at how they work to see if they address some of the points mentioned above.

Brainstorming’s foundation

Both use the basic brainstorming rules developed almost half a century ago by the advertising executive, Alex Faickney Osborn:

Don’t criticize.
Focus on quantity.
Combine and improve ideas produced by others.
Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how wild.

How do they work?

Electronic Brainstorming is done online using something like Microsoft Messenger. This way you can see all the participants ideas scroll across the screen. Brainwriting, on the other hand, involves getting together in a room like you would for a normal brainstorm. Only unlike traditional brainstorming where you all shout out ideas, brainwriting, much like it sounds, means that you write your ideas down Post-It note style. You can initial your ideas but no talking allowed.

A new study compared these ideas and found that Electronic Brainstorming produces the most new ideas.

The drawback of the Brainwriting method is that each person has to reach forward and pick up other ideas and people don’t do this as much as they should.

In contrast, Electronic Brainstorming allows (forces, even) every member to see what the others are saying with little or no effort. It means that the group is exposed to the flow of ideas with very little effort.

On top of this it solves some of the problems with face-to-face brainstorming. When it’s done online, each person doesn’t have to wait for the others to stop talking and is less worried about being evaluated (plus brainstormers don’t have to be in the same country!).

This probably helps to explain why people report finding Electronic Brainstorming to be a satisfying experience.

Oh, and use a group of 8 or more to optimize results. I wonder if chat addresses the “free-rider” because your ideas are now written down so people can easily see your “output.”

The bottom line is brainstorming can be effective if you know how to use it, when to use it, and its limitations.