Six ways brainstorms fail

Ever since brainstorms were invented they’ve had their detractors. I’m sure ‭you’ve sat through plenty of bad ones (excruciating) or good ones which achieved nothing (frustrating). Here’s why academics say brainstorms fail – and here’s what I reckon, from  my experience, you can do about it.

Problem: Free-riders – ‭can sit back and let ‭everyone else in a group do the work. People think there’s nothing at stake and so don’t take it ‭seriously.

Fix: Break larger groups into subgroups ‭of two to four people during the brainstorm. It is much harder to free-ride in a smaller group. Build in feedback time. If people know they will have to ‭share, test or pitch their ideas ‭at the end of a session, they pay ‭more attention.

Problem: Fixation – participants fix on weak ‭ideas because they ‭don’t know enough about the subject.

Fix – Set ‘homework’ in advance so that everyone arrives at the session ‭properly briefed with good data.

Problem: Social matching – we have a natural tendency to conform with out peers and bosses.

Fix: try Brainwriting techniques which allow ‭‘weaker’ voices to be heard. ‭Devil’s advocate techniques make it ok to break away from an apparent consensus.

Problem: Safety first – people who think their ideas will be judged won’t volunteer unusual or wild ideas.

Fix: explicitly encourage wild ideas during ‭the divergent or playful phase. ‭Reassure more sceptical members ‭of the group that wild ideas can be ‭tamed in the convergent or serious phase.

Problem: Production blocking – listening to someone else’s idea stops you realising your own.

Fix: Use silent techniques and small group discussions.

Problem: ‭Cognitive overload – there’s too much ‭chatter for people to think clearly.

Fix: Build in plenty of breaks which allow people to ‘incubate’ their own ideas.


Credit: ‭Kohn, N. and Smith, S.M. (2011) Collaborative fixation: Effects of others’
‭ideas on brainstorming, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(3), 359–371.

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