The Truth About Brainstorming

Stanford professor Robert Sutton says great ideas can always come out of meetings, but you have to know the rules

We've all sat through meetings designed to spark exciting new ideas only to be disappointed by their boring, obvious mediocre output. So fruitless and frustrating is group brainstorming that many managers say the whole effort is pointless. Maybe it's better to just let individuals come up with ideas on their own.

And maybe not. We asked Robert I. Sutton, a professor at the Stanford Engineering School and co-founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, for advice. Sutton ( and associate Andrew Hargadon, of the University of California at Davis, do research on innovative organizations. Sutton's next book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace And Surviving One That Isn't, from Warner, will be out in February, 2007.

Here's Sutton's take on getting innovative ideas out of meetings, plus his Eight Rules To Brilliant Brainstorming.

It is total nonsense to conclude that if you want creativity, you ought to keep your people in solitary confinement where they can't "waste time" listening to and building on the ideas of others.

Here's the problem: Most academic studies of brainstorming are rigorous, but irrelevant to the challenge of managing creative work. They argue that people brainstorming alone speak more ideas (per person) into a microphone during a 10-minute period than those in a group brainstorm. A "productivity loss" of group brainstorming happens because people take turns talking and therefore can't spew out ideas as fast.

But comparing whether creativity happens best in groups or alone is pretty silly when you look at how creative work is actually done. At creative companies, people switch between both modes so seamlessly that it is hard to notice where individual work ends and group work starts. At group brainstorms, individuals often "tune out" for a few minutes to sketch a product or organizational structure inspired by the conversation, and then jump back in to show others their idea. I recall a brainstorming session at design consultancy IDEO about a cool haircutting device, after which one participant ran off to build it. Drawing a hard line between individual and group creativity is pointless. What really matters is that the two approaches mingle as the creative process unfolds.

Many academic experiments into brainstorming are fake. They usually involve people who have no prior experience or training in group brainstorming. They often are led by undergraduates in psychology classes who are briefly presented a list of "rules" and then instructed to spend 10 or 15 minutes generating novel ideas about topics that they know -- and most likely care -- nothing about. A common question in these experiments is: "What would happen if everyone had an extra thumb?" This might be fun but isn't a problem that they will ever face.

Contrast this to the real-life brainstorms led by SAP's (SAP ) Design Services Team, where participants care very much about user-friendly software and will use any and all good ideas generated on the subject. These brainstorms have led SAP to develop many clever prototypes and are starting to change the software that the company ships.

Group brainstorming isn't a panacea even when it is done right, and it is a waste of time, or worse, when done wrong. But a broad body of research on teams and organizations, as well as my own observations, suggests that when brainstorming sessions are managed right and skillfully linked to other work practices, they can promote remarkable innovation.

By Robert I. Sutton

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