Today's Wall Street Journal has a column that questions the value of group brainstorming for generating new ideas. Andy Hargadon and I spent several years studying this topic, which included an 18 month ethnography of the role of brainstorming at IDEO. The upshot is that it is an idiotic debate and that much of the "research" that is cited by Paul Paulus is rigorous but irrelevant. A few key points about most brainstorming research by academics:
1. Brainstorming performance is defined only as the efficiency of idea generation -- the number of ideas generated per person in say a 15 minute session. It does not measure idea quality, commitment to the ideas, whether people learned things from listening to others ideas, subsequent success and so on. It also doesn't measure whether different people's ideas are built on or recombined because that is impossible in an individual brainstorm. The main finding is true -- but completely trivial -- individuals can speak more ideas into a microphone when they are working alone because they don't have to wait their turn to talk (and do that awful thing of listening to others ideas!).
2. The people in these experiments -- nearly all undergraduates -- have no past experience doing or leading brainstorms (In fact, in the one experiment that I know of where people were led by trained facilitators, the so-called disadvantages of group brainstorming went away).
3. Not one one of these experimental studies on "brainstorming performance" has ever been done in an organization where it is work practice that is used as a routine part of the work. Paulus wrote me some years back that he tried to recruit some "real" organizations that did real creative work, but had no luck. To put it another way, if these were studies of sexual performance, it would be like drawing inferences about what happens with experienced couples on the basis of research done only with virgins during the first time they had sex.
More generally, the question of whether "individual" or "group" brainstorming is "better" for creative work is, for starters, sort of like asking "what is more important, my brain or my heart?" You need group brainstorming just to get the diverse ideas out on the table, to create a setting where people can build one each others ideas, and so that people can express public commitment to developing them. And you need time alone to reflect and think about what ideas you will bring to a brainstormer and what to do with the ideas after the brainstormer. In fact, in his classic, Applied Imagination, Alex Osborne was very careful to say that creativity depended on alternating between group and individual ideation. And in fact, Paulus own research is starting to show this as well.
Also, the fact is that people in creative workplaces already know this, they always do both, and usually spend more time generating ideas alone than in groups -- our surveys at IDEO showed that, as skilled as they are at brainstorming, few designers spent more than 5 to 10 percent of their work week in brainstorming sessions. It is just one part of the "mix" of creative work, so examining brainstorming without looking at it in the larger context where it is done -- in an an organization, by experts, and woven together with other work practices -- is useless.
The WSJ article also quotes people in "real jobs" who talk about the notion that they've never had an idea in a meeting and that meetings stifle their creativity. No doubt that happens to some people, but it is less likely to happen when people are experienced at brainstorming, led by an experienced facilitator, and don't work in a place where people work in fear. One of the critics of group brainstorming had worked at GE -- an organization that fired (or "moved-out") the bottom 10% of its employees for years -- I'd feel uncomfortable saying something that sounds dumb in that setting too because, after all, it might cost me my job.