Brainstorming – Effective Technique or Sacred Cow?

sacred cow

cognitive biasI have spent a great deal of time studying and reading about human cognitive biases and their effect on business, especially the business of software development. This past weekend I finished the groundbreaking book by Stuart Sutherland, appropriately title “Irrationality: The Enemy Within”.

Since I have made quite a bit of study on the topic previously, some of the material was either referenced by other materials or has lost its shock value since I have become thoroughly convinced of humankind’s built in propensity not only for irrational behavior, but their inability to recognize that these biases are a problem. In fact, my experience is that a large segment of our population is not only ignorant of biases but seems to revel in a willful ignorance of scientific evidence. Certainly there appears to be a great deal of cognitive bias (mostly the confirmation bias) in the debate on climate change.

My previous understanding of human cognitive bias withstanding, while the book was published in 1992, the information is still relevant, interesting and cogent. I would suppose that there are a number of things that are worthy of note, but since there is such a wealth of information in the book, I decided to choose a single instance to write about here and encourage those interested in more examples to actually get a copy of the original material.

brain stormingThe one thing that caught my attention and has stuck in my mind is the example of using a technique called “brainstorming” to improve creativity and productivity. For those who have lived on another planet, brainstorming is the process of getting as many ideas out as possible without judging or filtering of the ideas. It has been used for decades since its introduction by Alex Olsen in the book Applied Imagination. Olsen claimed that in his experience using brainstorming in advertising agencies resulted in 44% more worthwhile ideas than individuals thinking up ideas without the benefit of group discussion.

Ever since that time, brainstorming has been widely used to improve creativity and productivity of groups. However, here’s the kicker, since as long ago as 1958, Osborn’s claims has been subject to numerous studies which almost universally cast doubt upon the effectiveness of brainstorming.  Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, states: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In other words, brainstorming doesn’t work quite as well as we think it does (or should).

With scientific evidence questioning the effectiveness of brainstorming vast, the real question is why does the use of brainstorming persist? The question is at the heart of much of my agile practice in that the prime issue is not whether one is merely effective, but that one is optimal. It is obvious to me that several cognitive biases are in play in keeping brainstorming around.

herd behaviorThere is something of the availability cascade to brainstorming “which is a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or ‘repeat something long enough and it will become true’)” (Wikipedia). Furthermore, a whole host of cognitive biases around groupthink, herd behavior and the bandwagon effect certainly have their influence on the popularity of brainstorming. Since brainstorming “seems” to make sense it is also subject to the belief bias, which is seen when the believability of the conclusion leads us to misunderstand the true effectiveness of the process. Frankly, I would suppose that I could find literally dozens of cognitive biases, which allow brainstorming to proliferate as the “go to” technique for group creativity and productivity.

Given that brainstorming may very well not be optimal, what are the alternatives that have actually been scientifically proven to be more effective? In a 2012 article for Psychology Today, Ray Williams proposes a few modifications to the brainstorming approach:

  • Have groups collaborate frequently by having them in close physical proximity to each other;
  • Pay attention to creating physical spaces that enable good collaboration, which facilitates people frequently “running into each other” while at work;
  • Revise the “no criticism” script of brainstorming to encourage debate about ideas;
  • Use appreciative inquiry techniques, where group participants build on ideas suggested by each individual in the group.

ideasMost interesting to me about these suggestions is how closely they align to the things that Agile (and I) speak to, namely close attention to co-location of people within an Agile team to increase good collaboration, allowing an environment where there is embracing of feedback as opposed to “failure” and using iterative feedback to improve ideas (and software) incrementally.

There are a great number of cognitive biases inherent in human beings. The first step is to be aware that these irrationalities exist. We must also acknowledge that we, as individuals, are subject to these irrationalities. Furthermore, we need to create an environment of safety that gives us the freedom and encouragement to continually explore and seek the underlying scientific truths, the “why” of what we do – the freedom to gore the sacred cows.