Group brainstorm sessions can be fun, but are they actually a good use of time? 

Apparently not - science says so and I'm more than happy to believe it. 

Dozens of laboratory studies found "...brainstorming groups produced fewer ideas, and ideas of less novelty, than the sum of the ideas created by the same number of individuals working alone."

I see huge value in a well-run brainstorm - some of my colleagues can squeeze a lot of creative juice out of a group chat, no question. But sitting in a room with post-its, sweets, maybe some creative aids (a bag of toys, or pictures of aspirational scenes) and a lot of "what if we" thoughts floating around can feel like the last place on earth creativity can flourish. 

Melissa Schilling explains some of the thinking here behind why groups are less creative than individuals - some super insights into the creative process. I'd like to add three brief points of my own: 

Performance Bias

In any group situation there's going to be an element of competition. A drive to impress with your ideas and maybe even score points off a colleague. Not exactly healthy for a free-flowing conversation with the goal of productive creativity in mind. 

It can absolutely be managed, especially with a good facilitator, but one of those is not going to be a feature of every group discussion. If we view our creativity as preformative, we risk focusing on the wrong things to achieve our own personal goals, rather than working as a proper unit towards the objective. 

Time is money 

Eight people, for an hour of brainstorming time, is the equivalent of one person wrapping their heads around it for a full, uninterrupted day. 

When though, was the last time you heard someone suggest "OK I'll just block out Tuesday to look at this and literally nothing else?" 

The creative power that comes with that space and time to let your mind process and make those unusual associations that leads to real creativity is massive, but almost impossible to achieve in an hour slot where there's pressure to keep shouting out ideas. 

I cannot agree enough with Schilling's point on the benefits of solitude here:

  • "Solitude is immensely valuable for creativity; it affords a person the time to think and pursue those things they find intrinsically interesting. It can help them to develop their own beliefs about how the world works, and to develop a self-concept that is less structured by the opinions of others."


While some people work well in pressurised environments - creativity is not fuelled by stress. If a business wants to produce creative insights and ideas for its own benefit, or for its clients, then recognising this is crucial. 

Investing in the right resources, training and facilities to ensure employees are primed for creative thought is a bit of a no-brainer. Don't expect a runner to win a race after a month on the couch, don't expect your staff to continue coming up with good creative work after weeks of late nights and overwork.