Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm

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Citation: Robert I. Sutton, Andrew Hargadon (1996) Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm
Tagged: Psychology (RSS) business (RSS), innovation (RSS), brainstorming (RSS)


Sutton and Hargadon's article is framed with the well-established finding from psychology that idea generation in groups (i.e., "brainstorming") is less effective than work alone. The authors use qualitative analysis from the product design firm IDEO -- a group that makes very extensive use of brainstorming -- and suggests that brainstorming contributes to and benefits organizations in ways other than just the number and quality of ideas generated and that, in these sense, it may still be appropriate for an organization. They suggest that all brainstorming research failed to evaluate brainstorming in the context of work within an organization and, as a result, missed these positive benefits.

The authors data is ethnographic and comes from spending 6-8 hours fieldwork per week, each, with IDEO over more than a year long period. They observed brainstorms, interviewed a large number of people, tracked design teams, engaged in informal discussions, attended design team meetings, engaged in other meetings, collected materials about IDEO, and administered a survey at IDEO.

The paper gives a detailed description of brainstorming at IDEO which is called The Deep Dive and which is used intensively and extensively at the firm.

The authors cited evidence (almost all of which they describe as strong) from each of the 7 different types of data collection for the following positive effects:

  1. Supporting organizational memory of design solutions.
  2. Producing skill variety for designers.
  3. Supporting an attitude of wisdom (acting with knowledge while doubting what one knows) and reinforcing organizational norms.
  4. Creating a status auction (a competition for status based on technical skill and ideas) by creating positive peer pressure to perform and to advertise one's skills and abilities to firm.
  5. Impressing clients invited to the brainstorming sessions.
  6. Providing income to the firm by creating increased billable hours.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The paper has been cited more than 370 times in the innovation, creativity, and organizations literature.

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