3 Reasons Your Brainstorming Sessions Are Failing


You’ve heard it before, right? “Think outside the box.” “Change the paradigm.” This stuff isn’t new. But it’s been regurgitated so often that it has lost all meaning.

Project managers face an inconvenient truth: brainstorming sessions often lead to nowhere. The ideas that come out of these meetings tend to be obvious, lacking the innovation that businesses need in order to survive.

Why are your brainstorming sessions producing little of value, and what can you do about it?

1. The Fear of Creativity

We all pretend to embrace creativity, and most of us genuinely believe that we want creative ideas, but scientific experiments suggest otherwise. An experiment conducted by the University of Pennsylvania tells us that uncertainty creates fear and outright hatred for creative ideas.

In the experiment, one group of people were told that they would be paid by a random lottery, while the others were given no special instructions. They found that this random payment system made the participants feel uneasy, and uncertain about the future.

More interestingly, while the “normal” participants associated the word “creativity” with words like “sunshine” and “rainbow,” the uncertain participants associated it with words like “vomit” and “hell.”

That’s right. A sense of uncertainty literally makes creativity feel like hell.

In a second experiment, the same team found that people justified this fear of creativity by actually convincing themselves that creative ideas were somehow less creative.

Brainstorming doesn’t work unless your employees are at ease. Thankfully, the experiment also uncovered a simple way to accomplish this: by asking the participants to write an essay about how there is more than one solution to every problem. While asking your employees to write an essay is probably overboard, calling attention to this frame of mind on repeated occasion is going to do a lot for the success of your brainstorming sessions.

2. Linear Thinking

In another psychological experiment, scientists discovered that paradoxical thinking helped people come up with more creative ideas. The experiment was the result of a collaboration between Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

In the experiment, participants were asked to read a series of reviews of a hypothetical toy by expert judges. If the judges said that the toy was creative, that it was cheap, or that it was creative or cheap, their performance on a creativity test was average.

But when they read reviews that the toy was creative and cheap, they got a boost on their creativity scores.

This was the result of paradoxical thinking. We typically think of things as being either creative or cheap. Realizing that a product could be both was enough to boost their creative potential.

In a similar experiment by the same team, half the participants were asked to come up with at least three paradoxical statements, while the others were asked to just write three statements. Afterward, they were asked to solve a complex creative problem, called the candle problem. Those who were asked to come up with paradoxical statements were much more likely to solve the problem.

In other words, successful brainstorming requires your team to be willing to mix and match ideas that don’t seem to go together.

3. Face to Face Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

This one’s painful for a lot of project managers to hear, but it’s the truth.

Experiment after experiment demonstrates that people come up with more, higher quality ideas when they brainstorm alone.

This goes against our intuition. If creativity is about mixing and matching ideas, shouldn’t group brainstorming make this easier? One experiment at the University of Texas demonstrates that when people listen to a tape before brainstorming alone, they actually do come up with better ideas. So the perspective of others does seem to play a part, but only before brainstorming.

There is one exception to this rule, though. The same team discovered that if people shared their ideas through a computer interface, their brainstorming sessions were even more successful than when working alone.

The problem is that face-to-face brainstorming creates too many distractions, fear of judgment, and a tendency to focus on a narrow group of similar ideas. These problems are avoided with a computer interface.

This calls attention to the power of computer-based collaboration. Rather than invest in single-person interfaces like Microsoft Project, managers can turn to collaborative alternatives like WorkZone, which allow for distraction-free brainstorming.


Innovation is a crucial component of success in modern business, and understanding it is a necessity for modern project managers. By conquering uncertainty, embracing paradoxes, and tapping into the power of computer-mediated brainstorming, you can outperform your competitors and deliver results.

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