Brainstorming Stirs the Pot


The Wall Street Journal apparently wrote a critique of brainstorming that questions its value. Bob Sutton (professor, author, etc) responds with an entertaining read. Prof. Sutton critiques the data analysis, the experiment execution, and the people involved. Seems the WSJ messed up on everything except the topic.

Brainstorming Matters

Brainstorming matters for product management, business analysis, and software design. Actually, I’m not sure what it doesn’t help.

We include brainstorming in our Top Five Requirements Gathering Tips, as a great way to unearth requirements that otherwise would be overlooked. One of the goals in requirements gathering is to innovate, and brainstorming frees people of the shackles that prevent innovation.

Prof. Sutton’s Critique

In his response to the WSJ, Professor Sutton points out three main critiques.

1. The measurement (# of ideas per session per person) is irrelevant, as it loses sight of the reason we brainstorm in groups – ideas feed ideas. Concept maps can be great tools for showing how ideas flow in group brainstorming. They also help to stimulate individual brainstorming by kicking our brains into spatial-association-mode. The WSJ doesn’t measure this in their studies. This does highlight the danger of measuring something just because its easier to measure. [We wrote about measuring product manager performance and the evils of easy-to-measure.]

2. The people were all unexperienced students, and there Prof. Sutton implies that the facilitator was not trained. This article shows the key steps for effective brainstorming facilitation, as well as ways to leverage the results specifically for requirements gathering.

3. The organizations that use brainstorming as part of their process were not the subject of the study.

To put it another way, if these were studies of sexual performance, it would be like drawing inferences about what happens with experienced couples on the basis of research done only with virgins during the first time they had sex.

Bob Sutton

Can’t top that.


Professor Sutton points out that even where brainstorming is part of the culture, like at IDEO, no one spends more than 5 to 10% of their time doing formal (group) brainstorming. He also points out that everyone there also does individual brainstorming. So the fact that the WSJ is comparing them in the first place is ill conceived. Each is only one component of any creative process.

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