AMICULUM Consulting Blog
Brainstorm, brainshower, or no-brainer?

It’s 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning and Max has just walked out of a 3-hour meeting with the head guys from ‘global’ about the strategy for their new anti-hypertensive medicine Cardiofix. Cardiofix was supposed to be a blockbuster, but the global market access strategy is not working. Uptake at specialist centres in Europe is variable and primary care doctors don’t seem to be prescribing Cardiofix. The gist of the problem is...Well, actually, what is the gist of the problem? Max isn’t sure. Were the forecasts wrong? Is the market intelligence data off? There are plenty of data being collected about the medication, and the company has no shortage of clinical, academic and industry experts, but Max doesn’t seem to be able to get the answers he needs. So how can he get to the nub of the problem and ensure the access strategy starts to deliver?

Max makes a snap decision. He decides to call the Cardiofix team together for a brainstorming session. Sounds like a good idea. There’s just one problem: brainstorming doesn’t work.

Let me explain.

Over the years brainstorming has become a popular approach for engaging group creativity and increasing creative output of teams in businesses in the public and private sectors. The approach originated with Alex Osborn and was first used by him in 1939. By 1948, Osborn had become an advertising and business guru; and so, he decided to write a book to share tricks and strategies he believed had lead to his success. Osborn’s book, Your Creative Power promised to help readers double their creative output; doubling their creativity would make the reader a happier and potentially more successful person. Your Creative Power became an instant bestseller.

Brainstorming was one of Osborn’s most celebrated ideas and strategies for activating group creativity. The idea was this: when a group works together members should use the brain to storm a creative problem hence the term ‘brainstorm’. Osborn told many stories of how he had used the technique to turn his employees into idea-generating machines, with brainstorming sessions producing an-idea-a-minute on one occasion. The approach was a hit. By the 50s brainstorming was being used by major companies and colleges. Over the past half-century the technique has been used in businesses, advertising firms, design firms, classrooms and boardrooms the world over.

Most of us have been part of, or even facilitated a brainstorming session at some point. People swear by the technique. Many of us will have participated in brainstorming sessions where the creative juices were flowing. So, is it true, is it really true that brainstorming does not work? Before we look at whether brainstorming works or not, let’s step back for a second and clarify the term.

Osborn’s brainstorming technique was characterized by four basic rules:

  • There should be no criticism or negative feedback. Osborn saw the no-criticism rule as one of the most essential conditions for successful brainstorming. If people were worried about being judged or ridiculed they might hold back and the stream of ideas would dry up
  • Free-association or ‘free-wheeling’ (Osborn’s term) should be encouraged. The further afield the associations, the better
  • Focus on quantity not quality of the ideas that come up. The more ideas you have, the greater the likelihood of finding a winner
  • Think of how the ideas connect. Participants should not only consider how the ideas of others can be turned into better ideas, but also how two or more ideas can be joined into yet another idea

Scientists have been investigating the effectiveness of brainstorming since the 1950s. The first empirical study was conducted at Yale University in 1958: 48 men were divided into 12 groups and each group was given a series of creative puzzles to solve by brainstorming using Osborn’s guidelines. The same puzzles were given to 48 equally matched male undergraduates who were asked to work on the problems on their own. Not only did the individuals working solo produce twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, the ideas were better than those from the brainstorming sessions. And, here’s the kicker. More than half a century later, numerous high-quality published studies have consistently demonstrated that brainstorming, as defined by Osborn’s rules doesn’t work; brainstorming groups come up with far fewer ideas than the same number of people working alone.

Despite these results, brainstorming is widely used as a means of extracting creative ideas and creative solutions from groups. I say brainstorming ‘as defined by the Osborn rules’ because the question is, are Osborn’s rules used in ‘real-life’ brainstorming sessions?


Photo by Steve Jurvetson, 30 May 30 2008

It turns out that the ‘no-criticism rule’ Osborn found essential to successful brainstorming is the most problematic; constructive criticism can in fact increase creativity and help focus the creative output of groups. Studies show that debate, constructive criticism and conflicting perspectives encourage people to dig below the surface of their imagination and call up unpredictable ideas. Being exposed to unfamiliar perspectives fosters creativity. Studies show that brainstorming groups – following Osborn’s rules – do slightly better than groups that are given no instructions. But groups that engage in debate produce the most creative solutions and outperform brainstorming by up to 20%. What’s more, when researchers approach participants individually after the group has disbanded to find out if they’ve had any more ideas after the session, debates produce more than twice as many additional ideas after the session compared with the brain-stormers.  

And then there is the issue of sameness.

 “If the same people who work with the same problems everyday meet and discuss these problems using the same language and procedures the outcome is always predictable. Sameness breeds more sameness. Seeing the world with old eyes only helps produce old ideas.”

Arthur B. VanGrundy

When it comes to creative output in groups, it’s not just a question of what instructions the group is given, it also matters who is in the group – the mix of people, gender, skills, mind-set, experience and expertise – where the session takes place, who facilitates it, how the room is arranged, the number and quality of pre-meeting interactions, and more. 

So, coming back to Max, our market access strategy executive: what are the key take-home messages that might help Max get to the nub of the problem and ensure the access strategy starts to deliver? Max made a snap decision to call a brainstorming session. People often make snap decisions to brainstorm for innovative solutions based on emotional triggers (like a difficult strategy meeting) before defining the problem clearly. Not all problems benefit from group input however, and group input need not always take the form of a brainstorming session. For those Cardiofix problems that would benefit from group work, Max might wish to consider the following five key take-home messages before convening a brainstorming session.

Five key take-home messages

  1. Define the problem. Make sure the problem is clearly defined before convening a group session. Time spent defining the problem is always time well spent. How we define the problem determines how we define the solution. Sometimes a complex situation can be dissected into a series of specific problems, some of which may have straightforward – ano-brainer – solutions.
  2. Mix and match. After defining the problem, ask yourself: is this problem one for the group, or one for a few select individuals working solo? If you decide the problem would benefit from group input be sure to invite a diverse group of participants. Mixed groups perform better than groups of like-minded people.
  3. Think outside the box. Be creative with what you call the session. Is it a Nudge group session? Maybe it is an Ideas lab? Perhaps it’s a Sand-pit session? I was recently invited in for a ‘brainshower’ session to generate, create, and debate a drizzle of ideas for engaging experts at an advisory meeting. Whatever you call yourselves the more diverse thinkers with different backgrounds you bring together, the better.
  4. Circulate the problem in advance. Some people work better solo. Introverts in particular need quiet to be creative.
  5. Follow-up and feedback. People often have more creative ideas after the group session is finished so follow-up and feedback about the outcome of the session with people in the group. Group sessions are not just one-off opportunities for generating creative output. They are also opportunities for collective responsibility, knowledge sharing and team building all of which help to make your company or business a place where innovation can thrive.

For more information about this blog topic or to discuss any of these ideas further please contact the team at team at