Jason Harper first pointed me to a podcast on the New Yorker article “Groupthink – the brainstorming myth,” by Jonah Lehrer. It was followed by a tweet from Josh Gordon asking my opinion. Additional tweets from Richard Dedor and Aaron Deacon then surfaced about the article. At that point, there was no choice but to go on record about Jonah Lehrer’s premise that brainstorming, first espoused by Alex Osborn of the B.B.D.O. advertising agency in the late 1940s, “doesn’t work.”

Brainstorming Doesn’t Work?

Jonah Lehrer cited two sources challenging the effectiveness of the approach and ground rules associated with brainstorming:

  • A 1958 Yale study found students working individually generated twice as many ideas as brainstorming groups, and the ideas were judged better.
  • A 2003 study from Charlan Nemeth at the University of Berkley reported groups told to debate ideas generated 20% more ideas than those told not to judge ideas (one of the foundational brainstorming ground rules).

Lehrer highlighted several situations as further evidence that the typical approach to brainstorming doesn’t work for generating creative ideas:

  • A study of Broadway musicals showed the most successful shows had neither very high nor very low familiarity among the show’s creative forces. A moderate level of familiarity seemed to yield the most successful Broadway musicals.
  • Isaac Kohane’s study at Harvard Medical School found that among 35,000 co-authored research studies, there was a positive relationship between more frequent citations and the closer proximity of authors.
  • Several examples of the beneficial creative impact of proximity and random interactions in workspaces were discussed, citing the building arrangement Steve Jobs pushed at Pixar Animation and the Building 20 lab at MIT.
  • The Charlan Nemeth study also found dissent can more successfully stimulate free association and the creative thinking that results from it.

Jonah Lehrer wraps the Groupthink article by stating the fatal flaw with brainstorming is believing one approach leads to the best creativity. Lehrer points to the importance of group composition, diverse perspectives, cumulative unpredictable interactions among people with loose connections, and a tolerance for difficult interactions as fundamental elements for the best creativity.

Does Brainzooming Think Brainstorming Doesn’t Work?

I buy where Lehrer is coming from in “Groupthink,” but that may be because of my willingness to consider “brainstorming” to be much more loosely defined than the definition Jonah Lehrer offers from “Your Creative Power,” Alex Osborn’s original book introducing brainstorming.

How Does Brainzooming Differ from Brainstorming?

My willingness to treat the term “brainstorming” loosely and tinker with what constitutes brainstorming in our world is why our process and our company are both called Brainzooming.

In developing our creative method, we already addressed the issues Lehrer raises regarding group composition, interactions, and dissent during a Brainzooming creative session.

Group Composition

We spend considerable time managing group composition for any Brainzooming creative session, making sure there is diversity in any client group. We want people with direct ties to the topic of interest, others with multi-disciplinary backgrounds, and others who are creative instigators. We strive to include some people with very little familiarity on our topic and also people who don’t all work together all the time. That level of diversity works wonders for great thinking, and our Brainzooming method allows them to work together productively despite very different (and often diametrically opposed) worldviews.


We typically only get to design client workspaces for the Brainzooming creative sessions we create and facilitate (although it would be cool to design permanent creative spaces). We design a creative space featuring dramatically more room per person than most facilities want to accommodate. Designing this type of session layout promotes frequent physical movement and rotations among table and group assignments so there are plenty of new creative connections happening.


We do start Brainzooming creative sessions by saying, “Do not criticize ideas.” Given how easy it is for most groups to savage one another’s ideas, our admonition is at best a way to slow down criticism. We have actually started to introduce a variation on the rule in Brainzooming creative sessions asking people challenging ideas to also offer better alternatives.

What Did We Learn from the “Groupthink” New Yorker article?

The awakening for me in the Jonah Lehrer Groupthink article and my reaction to it is the need to speak more precisely about what The Brainzooming Group does. Precise descriptions of what we do are not something I’ve spent too much time addressing. Frankly, it’s more comfortable for me to be very muted in talking about what we do. As a result, I usually talk about our Brainzooming method as me simply having pulled together ideas from a variety of sources. If you want to call it “brainstorming,” that’s been okay. If you want to call it anything else that’s reasonably accurate, that’s been okay, too.

In reality, we’ve built a creative approach with Brainzooming that’s highly flexible and infused with techniques from sources as varied as big time consulting, strategic planning, creative thinking, market research, self-help methods, reality tv shows, design, and improv comedy – to name a few. The Brainzooming approach has been tested, adapted, and refined through hundreds of strategy, innovation, and creative sessions in some environments that were incredibly hostile toward creativity. We have delivered real results with the Brainzooming approach, even when we had senior managers actively hoping we would not be successful.

I have talked about what we do as brainstorming, because it is the easy way to talk about it, but it is not simply brainstorming.

What we do is Brainzooming.

And if you have a need for better ideas that can actually be implemented successfully, we’d be honored to show you what results the Brainzooming approach can deliver for your organization. – Mike Brown

The Brainzooming Group helps make smart organizations more successful by rapidly expanding their strategic options and creating innovative plans they can efficiently implement. Email us at [email protected] or call us at 816-509-5320 to learn how we can help you enhance your strategy and implementation efforts.


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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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13 Responses to “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work, Groupthink, and the Brainzooming Method”

  1. Thanks for the mention, Mike! Great job addressing Lehrer’s piece & giving us an inside look at what you do. Any argument indicating that Brainzooming sessions produce *fewer* ideas than people working alone simply doesn’t hold water. We know — we’ve seen you in action, and you guys get people to produce insane amounts of high-quality ideas.
    Evidence: http://brainzooming.com/google-fiber-for-business-kansas-city/
    — Jason Harper, @KCLibrary

  2. Hi. I do believe in groupthink. But I consider valuable what you describe about your methods in this nice post. 
    You pride yourself about having delivered real results with the brainzooming approach even when you faced some senior managers actively hoping you not to be successful… Have you documented that kind of cases? would be really interesting knowing the dynamics of such a tough situation.


    • Mike Brown says:

      Cesar – the link at that part of the article contains overviews of three such situations. You can find them at http://brainzooming.com/getting-ready-for-2010-3-real-life-planning-successes/1396/ 

  3. Alan says:

    Please do some more reading.

    Leher didn’t
    Susan Cain didn’t
    Ashley Merryman didn’t

    Yes those studies of a “bunch of people sitting around” throwing out ideas is not BRAINSTORMING.

    Brainstorming as created by Alex Osborn, taught by CPSI for nearly 60 years and taught by thousands to tens of thousands of consultants, teachers, professors DOES WORK.

    If you read the studies you would see what the 3 authors did not.The studies were poorly designed and weren’t studying BRAINSTORMING.  They were weak studies of people in a room without training leaders or facilitators and many other variables the you have listed before that cause IDEA Sessions or MEETINGS to be ineffective

    I have a webpage devoted to the studies that CLEARLY SHOW Brainstorming the process not the bastardized cliche. http://www.cre8ng.com

  4. Mike Brown says:

    Thanks Jason for being an instigator on multiple blog posts!


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