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Novelist William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible that “depression is a true wimp of a word.” True depression, he said, swallows its victims entirely and is so overwhelming that a better word for it is brainstorm, not as it is currently used to mean some burst of inspiration, but as “a howling tempest in the brain,” or a violent mental derangement.

That is not what Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Osborn had in mind when he coined the term brainstorming 60 years ago.

Frustrated by what he felt was a lack of creativity and imagination among his ad execs, he gathered them in a group and directed them to spontaneously suggest as many new ideas as possible. His executives did just that, which pleased Osborn immensely.

He believed what distinguished his brainstorming from other group activities was the absence of negative feedback

Osborn was quoted as saying “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.” He insisted the process would fail if people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed. He felt that if no one criticized their ideas, people would lose their social inhibitions and free-associate spontaneously. In the era of the Madison Avenue three-martini lunch, brainstorming worked for slogans and ads, Osborn was hailed as a genius, and all types of companies couldn’t wait to get on the bandwagon.

The only trouble is they were wrong.

Studies done by pesky scientific types began to show that group brainstorming was really a bad way to go about searching for solutions to problems. Art Markman of HBR says fifty years of scientific research shows that groups using traditional brainstorming techniques come up with fewer ideas – and fewer good ideas – than having people brainstorm individually. The reason is simple. When people work together, their ideas tend to converge. When they work alone, their thinking is divergent. Psychology professor Paul Paulus explains how “brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build. It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well.” Annie Sneed of Fast Company says brainstorming is dumb, because group dynamics have too many downsides. Among them are how strong people dominate, less assertive ones hold back, toadies practice group suckup, the verbal version of groupthink, and more. 

The end result is that brainstorming does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

Psychology professor Charlan Nemeth says the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important – the lack of negative feedback. As Nemeth’s findings show, “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”  According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyanna-ish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong.”

So are we done with brainstorming?

Au contraire. KornFerry says the renewed if sadly misinformed emphasis on brainstorming ”dovetails neatly with contemporary culture’s unquestioning faith in all things social and collaborative.”

Just make sure you ignore decades of evidence.

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