The Science

Why you have been brainstorming wrong

Image of Diana Diez
Diana Diez2020-07-15
Sitting in a meeting room, shouting out cool ideas is supposed to be creative and inspiring - but it is not. The efficiency of classical brainstorming is exaggerated, and studies show that people generate fewer ideas when brainstorming in a group than they do working on their own. Why is brainstorming failing, and how can we make it work?

Social loafing

When a group of people work together, each individual is less productive than they are when working on their own. It is easy to blend in with the crowd if no one is holding you accountable for the outcome. The larger the group, the less personal responsibility is assigned to each of the group members. If you feel that your effort will not matter, you simply lose motivation.  So, when it comes to brainstorming -  why bother making an effort in a discussion where your contribution will go unnoticed and the loudest ideas will get picked anyway?

Evaluation apprehension

A basketball player can be good at free throws at practice but might end up failing to score in front of a crowd. In a live game, there is a lot of pressure on you to make that shot -  pressure that would not be there in training. This is called evaluation apprehension, which is the anxiety that we feel when performing in front of others. If you are afraid that others will judge you when performing a task, you will likely do worse. Evaluation apprehension makes people hesitate to share their thoughts, and many great ideas might get lost because of that.

Production blocking

In a group discussion, we expect people to take turns talking. This is in itself a positive thing. It is important to give each other space to express themselves fully. However, there is a clear disadvantage when it comes to idea generation - when one person is talking, the others are not. It is polite to listen, but you can not think of your ideas at the same time. The rest of the group members are blocked from producing ideas and might get distracted or forget what they were thinking about. If you, on the other hand, keep rehearsing an idea in your short-term memory, you will likely fail to develop new ones. 

Does this mean that brainstorming is pointless? Of course not! But we need to find ways to limit the drawbacks and focus on getting the most out of a brainstorming session. Osborn established the following rules for the idea generation:

  1. Focus on quantity
  2. Do not criticise
  3. Welcome wild ideas
  4. Combine and improve ideas

The goal of brainstorming is to produce as many unique ideas as possible before evaluating their feasibility. Reducing the effects of evaluation apprehension, social loafing and production blocking helps us achieve this. Research shows that silent submission of ideas reduces the fear of judgement, providing a safe environment for idea generation. 

Brainwriting is a popular method where every individual writes down their ideas before passing them on to the next person. This person can, in turn, build upon those and add even more thoughts. Brainwriting is usually done with pen and paper, but using digital tools can be even more effective when it comes to producing unique ideas. Online brainstorming builds upon the same principle as brainwriting, but the difference is that you get to see all ideas that have been posted live. So, what makes online brainstorming successful?

Encouraging individual contribution

To reduce the effects of social loafing, it is important to define a clear task and involve everyone in the process. Working individually highlights the impact of their contribution and provides the team members with a sense of responsibility. Online tools such as Mentimeter can be anonymous, which helps people to express more ideas and be bolder in what they come up with. This will lead to an increase in productivity and support the group is sticking to the brainstorming rules.

Easy display of submitted ideas

Exposure to ideas from other participants provides us with useful cognitive stimulation. This works as an inspiration for idea generation and helps with following rule number four - combine and improve ideas. Using an Open-ended question type with a flowing grid makes it easy to see submissions from other participants, which is focusing the attention on the task and improves the teams’ performance. 

Producing multiple ideas at the same time

If verbal brainstorming leads to production blocking, online brainstorming is rather enabling parallelisation of production. The team can produce many ideas simultaneously instead of presenting one idea at a time, thanks to the live display of submissions. This also helps reduce the number of redundant ideas, increasing the efficiency of the meeting even more.

Satisfaction and ease of use

Studies on online brainstorming show that the participants are generally happy with the process and the outcome of the session. Allowing some interaction between the participants during the individual brainstorming is also having a positive impact. The group members find the task easier, feel less evaluation apprehension and a higher level of participation. Mentimeter can at the same time both enable individual work and create a base for discussions between team members. It is quick to set up, anonymous and easy to use on any online device - helping you create a productive brainstorming session!


Gallupe, R. B., Bastianutti, L. M., & Cooper, W. H. (1991). Unblocking Brainstorms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(1), 137–142.

Michinov, N. (2012). Is electronic brainstorming or brainwriting the best way to improve creative performance in groups? An overlooked comparison of two idea-generation techniques. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(SUPPL. 1), 222–243.

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