Years ago, I was trained in brainstorming work. Since then, I have used companies to conduct brainstorming sessions on tough problems or I ran them myself. I thought these groups worked and successful companies have been built on these practices. But this might be a good example of how our impressions can be a bad indicator of what is really happening.
Two relatively new books cite the same research that proves brainstorming doesn’t work*, but each puts their own interpretation on it. Jonas Lehrer (in his book Imagine) says brainstorming doesn’t work because it doesn’t incorporate criticism and debate. Only by identifying flaws in our ideas and fixing them can the ideas be maximized so that they are successful. He goes into some depth about how Pixar’s use of this in a positive way has helped it to become the only movie production company to consistently produce hits. Pixar doesn’t allow just criticism though, the person criticizing has to “plus” the criticism, providing a suggestion that addresses the criticism and overcomes it. It also doesn’t allow harsh or judgmental language (which has killed many a good idea.) It sounds like they took Steve Job’s tendency to criticize and made it more tolerable and probably more productive. Interestingly, when I was taught brainstorming I was taught a technique which allowed for criticism and for findings ways to overcome problems with the idea (another type of “plussing” that Pixar does), so I guess Ogilvy was ahead of their time when they developed their own branded “Interactive Innovation.”
Susan Cain (in her book Quiet) identifies a different reason why brainstorming doesn’t work – that Introverts don’t function well in groups because they get overstimulated and shut down. Basically, brainstorming is set up for extroverts. Thoughtful introverts can have great ideas, but you won’t get them in a group. She recommends having people brainstorm on their own, not in groups, and the research supports that. Since market research may be filled with introverts (as I have talked about earlier), this advice is particularly important.
My conclusion- do both. Do a brainstorming session in which ideas are able to be criticized in a productive, respectful manner then work on fixing the problems identified by the criticisms AND allow people to bring ideas with them that they developed on their own. (We did that in Interactive Innovation by separating brainstorming from criticism or you can try to imitate Pixar’s “plussing”.) Also, ask them to contribute ideas they think of after the session – introverts are notorious for coming up with stuff later.
*For details on the proof that brainstorming doesn’t produce the best or most ideas see pages 158-161 in Jonas Lehrer’s book Imagine and pages 89-92 in Susan Cain’s book Quiet
Note: You may be aware that Jonas Lehrer has admitted making up quotes for Bob Dylan in this book. The book has been pulled off the shelves, so we shall have to wait to see if it will be reissued and what effect that will have on what I just wrote.