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Why Brainstorming Fails, and How Remote Working Can Help

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

In the ‘50s, a radical, new model for group-based idea generation started to take off. It claimed to double the number of ideas that any one person could come up with alone. It would generate ideas that would never have been considered otherwise, unlocking the potential in the human mind that had been lying dormant for eons.

This model is brainstorming, which is still widely used in organisations today. Teams come together, synergise their diverse pools of knowledge and a torrent of ideas emerge. It’s reputation is stellar; up to 80% of people believe they produce more ideas while brainstorming.

However, the reality is that brainstorming results in much fewer ideas than if group members were to come up with ideas on their own. Clearly, there’s something causing brainstorming to fail. To find out, researchers tested three potential underpinning reasons as to why brainstorming fails to reach its hype.

1. Free-riding:

Their first thought considered people who may come along for the ride, while intentionally contributing little or nothing to the brainstorming process. It may be that this employee is perfectly reliable on their own, but they choose to disengage as they feel others in the group will do the work for them. It’s a common behaviour known in psychology as social loafing. So, perhaps it’s the lazy co-worker(s) who ends up tarnishing the efficacy of the brainstorm.

2. Shyness or introversion:

That said, this supposed ‘lazy’ co-worker may not be lazy at all, and instead may simply be uncomfortable in groups. Those who are more introverted find it difficult to speak in these situations, thereby stifling their sharing of ideas. But there’s more than just an unwillingness to speak at work. Introverts produce higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, when in groups. And when under stress, individuals also experience a redirection of attention and slightly impaired cognitive functioning, meaning introverts may not be operating at their full capacity when brainstorming in a group.

3. Production blocking:

As opposed to free-riding and introversion, production-blocking is reasonably straightforward. Simply put, when someone is talking, others must wait for their turn to speak. Unfortunately, by the time a person’s turn finally rolls around, they may have forgotten what they wanted to say! This can be particularly common if a group is placid and nonconfrontational thereby allowing more commanding members to dominate. Of the three causes researched, production-blocking was in fact found to account for the biggest proportion as to why brainstorms fail.

In light of the current circumstances, many people feel that their team-based productivity has been hampered even further by the move to remote working. But there’s another twist – prior to lockdown, research had been corroborating ‘electronic brainstorming’ as a better alternative to traditional brainstorming. This is brainstorming which involves the use of computer-based procedures, such as online discussions and real-time e-mail communication, to generate unique ideas and solutions to problems. Sound familiar?

Indeed, this is the precise situation in which we many of us find ourselves now. Electronic brainstorming enables those higher in introversion to contribute without the anxiety of being physically positioned in a large group. Some applications allow the anonymous submission of ideas, benefitting those who are inhibited by fear of judgement. Because these applications allow input from multiple people simultaneously, production-blocking is also curtailed.

So contrary to what people may think, the move to remote working has actually enabled better brainstorming opportunities with our teams. There’s still much we can do to improve our idea generation processes of course, but we’re in a great place to start making our team brainstorms really powerful.


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