Jonah Lehrer Is Wrong - Brainstorming Can Work

If you read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine, you probably caught his claim that brainstorming doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? The main culprit, according to Lehrer, is Groupthink. Groupthink, a concept originally conceived by Irving Janus (1972), occurs when “a homogenous highly cohesive group is so concerned with maintaining unanimity that they fail to evaluate all their alternatives and options.” It’s a problem because the goal of brainstorming should be to come up with many ideas, not one idea masquerading as many.

So, what’s the core reason Groupthink occurs? I argue that it’s fear – fear that people won’t like their ideas, that others will judge them, that they won’t come up with ideas crazy or cool enough to say out loud.

Presumably, most brainstorming sessions are established with the goal of solving a problem and if participants really want to be successful, there probably should be a bit of fear that they won’t find the right solution. The conflict and gamesmanship that arises similar to what happens during the game Apples to Apples. The rules say the judge should pick the match that is "most creative, humorous or interesting", and players can pitch/sell the judge on their card. With that goal of finding the ‘right’ solution, it’s almost natural that conflict will arise when people want their idea to win.

So what to do about it? I recommend you check out IDEO’s seven tips on better brainstorming. Two of them, Defer Judgment  & Build on Ideas of Others, support an environment where fear can be curtailed. When everyone defers judgment, people recognize that it’s okay to say whatever is on their mind without hesitation.  Similarly, the classic improv comedy rule Build on Ideas of Others, fosters an environment of supportive [creative] thinking. 

Lehrer goes on in his book Imagine as well as his New Yorker article on Brainstorming to provide more reasons why brainstorming doesn't work. I'm a firm advocate that the best ideas come about when two disparate concepts come together and an efficient way of getting that done is to bring two perspectives to the table. Recognize that brainstorming can quickly become linear and low value, and fight against that by using Ideo's rules and keeping an eye out for fear.

Watch Lehrer’s movie on brainstorming:


A Brainstorming Session at IDEO:

Check out IDEO’s brainstorming rules:

Check out Lehrer’s New Yorker Article: