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Brainstorming to Stimulate Creativity – Pros & Cons

This is a links-page, with links to selected pages about BrainStorming, and brief descriptions (including page-size) of these pages, plus my comments.

It supplements my section about stimulating a creative Free Generation of Ideas` that includes:  Principles for Creative-and-Critical Productive Thinking, and Reducing Harsh Attitudes (by Developing a Creative Community and/or using Brainstorm-and-Edit), and Reducing Restrictive Assumptions.


The many factors contributing to creativity form a complex blend, and there is no “secret formula” for promoting creativity with individuals or in groups.  But there is general agreement that a person's creative thinking can be stimulated by interacting with other people, and also that groups can inhibit creativity if there is a perceived pressure to conform, which produces “groupthink” when group-members feel that certain kinds of thinking (but not other kinds) are expected.

Much more could be said, and you can read some of it in these pages:


Mark McGuinness (of Lateral Action) challenges a key premise of brainstorming, by explaining Why Critical Thinking Is Not a Creativity Killer.

In a good overview, he asks Is Brainstorming a Waste of Time? and examines its pros & cons.  This blog-post from 2009 stimulated 21 responses/links plus comments;  these responses/links and his Popular Articles (left column) form a web-network that is a gold mine of fascinating ideas & information, and it gives you starting points for further explorations.

Basically, I agree with McGuinness and (below) Bob Sutton's defense of brainstorming.  But I also agree with much of what its critics say — although I think they go too far in wanting to eliminate it — and I especially like their ideas about other ways (without brainstorming) to stimulate creativity.


A Defender of Brainstorming:

Bob Sutton describes Pros & Cons of Brainstorming and explains why "the academic research on brainstorming – the laboratory studies that are described as showing it doesn't work – are rigorous but irrelevant," and how "brainstorming is just one juncture in the process" and is only one way to "generate ideas."

Also from Sutton, Why The New Yorker's Claim [in an article by Jonah Lehrer] That Brainstorming "Doesn't Work" Is An Overstatement And Possibly Wrong explains why, although he likes most of the article, he disagrees when Lehrer, in a key claim, "states flatly that brainstorming doesn't work."  Why?  Because "in most brainstorming studies because an individual working alone is not exposed to the ideas of others," but "talking and listening are both key elements of the social process underlying creativity" so "a key part of face-to-face brainstorming is building on and combining the ideas of others," which — along with the fact that most research is not led by expert facilitators, and is not done by experienced brainstormers, makes most studies "irrelevant" for evaluating how brainstorming can be effective in real-world situations.   /   Before reading the pages below, begin with this article for balance, for a counter-perspective that explains why — even though there are strong reasons (based on logic and scientific research) for not claiming that brainstorming is always useful in all ways — some kinds of brainstorming (when done well) can be useful for some purposes in some situations. {page-size is 5 k of text for the article, plus 7 k for comments}  Then return to this occasionally after reading the anti-brainstorming pages below.

Sutton's "Why..." blog ends by linking to Brainstorming Groups in Context , a scholarly paper he wrote in 1996;  no, this debate is not new, it began in the 1950s (when Alex Osborn popularized the basic technique) and will continue!


Basically, I agree with McGuinness and Sutton when they describe the pros & cons of brainstorming, and explain why it can be useful in some situations for some purposes, although not always in all ways.

As with other Strategies for Thinking a strategy of Brainstorm-and-Edit should be done well (alone or with others) if it's done at all, but in some situations it can be useful.   One reason for disagreement is because, for an individual or (more commonly) for a group, there are a variety of ways to “do brainstorming” (by coordinating the two phases in this process of design) and some ways work better than others, with effectiveness varying from one context to another.


Critics of Brainstorming:

Ray Williams (for Psychology Today) - Why Brainstorming Doesn't Improve Productivity or Creativity  {5 k}

Reena Jana (for SmartPlanet) - Why brainstorming doesn’t work, and what does is a summary {5 k, plus comments by others} — concluding that teams with successful collaborative creativity often "are made up of individuals with different opinions and backgrounds, who are familiar enough with each other to be open-minded yet brutally honest about their colleagues' newest ideas" — of this article:

Jonah Lehrer (for New Yorker) - in Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth he shows, with fascinating illustrations, how interactions with other people — either planned (using different strategies & facilitations) or spontaneous — can promote creativity, or inhibit it.  Lehrer describes a research-based principle for promoting creativity by quoting Charlan Nemeth: "While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy.  Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them."  {31 k}

I agree with most of what Lehrer says, including the "research-based principle" that — based on my experience and logic, before hearing it from Lehrer & Nemeth — I described in Developing a Creative Community: "Everyone should improve their ability-and-willingness to learn from others, with Productive Responses to Critical Feedback that include viewing feedback [such as that in a "debate and criticism" mode of discussion] as intended to be helpful" rather than harshly critical.

Lehrer also describes the creativity-stimulating effects of interactions between people who have different perspectives, and how these interactions can be promoted by nearness and architecture.  He illustrates with stories about the effects of architecture, when interactions are promoted accidentally (at MIT in Building 20) or intentionally (by Steve Jobs for Pixar).



Jena McGregor (for Washington Post) – Why brainstorming doesn’t work  {3 k}

8 Tips For Being Better At Brainstorming in Edudemic {3 k + 8 diagrams}

Are we Brainstorming the Wrong Way?  {1 k + large graphics-with-text}

Bootcamp Bootleg (from d.school of Stanford) – ideas for effective brainstorming


Productive Thinking (written by me) explains how Productive Thinking occurs when we effectively combine Creativity (in a Free Generation of Ideas and/or with Guided Generation of Ideas, Analysis-and-Revision, and other strategies) plus Critical Thinking and Ideas-Knowledge, and perhaps Process-Knowledge.

Creative Thinking in Education and Life is my links-page for a wider range of ideas, moving far beyond just brainstorming.


I.O.U. — Later, maybe in mid-January, I'll add more comments about these pages, and will find other pages to supplement (or replace) these.