DeKalb, Ill.—It has been said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Now…
Despite being a ubiquitous method of idea generation in organizations worldwide, brainstorming has received its share of bashing over the decades in numerous research studies examining its effectiveness.
Exploring why brainstorming persists in the face of this contradictory data, NIU researchers say they have found a previously hidden but important benefit: teamwork.
“There’s all this research that says brainstorming doesn’t work—that there are better ways to generate ideas—and yet it continues to be widely used by corporations,” said David Henningsen, who led the study. “We thought there has to be a benefit, so our line of research has been examining whether brainstorming helps build a strong team. We found that it does.”
Henningsen and his wife, Mary Lynn Miller Henningsen, both professors in the NIU Department of Communication, teamed up on the latest study, published online ahead of print in the journal Communication Reports. It examined the perceptions of 151 participants (upper-level college students) in 41 brainstorming groups.
The researchers specifically teased out participants’ perceptions of group cohesiveness, and the relationship between those perceptions and four common features of brainstorming:
- focusing on quantity – prioritizing the gathering of as many ideas as possible.
- piggybacking – building on the ideas of others.
- freewheeling – the willingness to share even impractical ideas.
- non-evaluation – avoidance of providing positive or negative feedback to others’ ideas.
“Groups that focus on both the quantity of ideas and building on the ideas of others significantly increase their cohesiveness,” David Henningsen said.
The researchers said those findings have important implications for organizations.
“Brainstorming can be used to help a team buy into and implement a plan of action,” Henningsen said. “Or it can be used to simply build cohesiveness, which in turn can lessen employee turnover and increase employee commitment.”
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, freewheeling idea generation was negatively associated with group cohesiveness.
“It may be that the more impractical ideas generated in groups were more difficult for group members to build on,” Mary Lynn Miller Henningsen said.
Nonevaluation, or the absence of criticism of ideas during a brainstorming session, has long been seen as a distinguishing characteristic of brainstorming, but the Henningsens found no correlation to group cohesiveness.
The Henningsens began looking at group cohesiveness after a graduate student of theirs said he used brainstorming as a type of icebreaker, or way to orient new employees, at his public relations firm.
“We thought, maybe brainstorming has other benefits besides generating ideas,” David Henningsen said.
Brainstorming was famously made popular by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the late 1940s as a way to foster creative ideas. Past studies, however, have found that brainstorming groups produce fewer ideas than groups using alternative techniques, such as idea generation by individuals who then combine their output with others.
Emerging research by the Henningsens and others imply there might have been shortcomings to those earlier studies.
“I think there are probably more benefits to brainstorming than we currently see in the research,” David Henningsen said. “Corporations are not full of foolish people.”