Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm

Sutton, Robert I.; Hargadon, Andrew
December 1996
Administrative Science Quarterly;Dec96, Vol. 41 Issue 4, p685
Academic Journal
Experimental research indicates that people in face-to-face brainstorming meetings are less efficient at generating ideas than when working alone. This so-called productivity loss has led many brainstorming researchers to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence for the ineffectiveness of these sessions. We question this conclusion because it is based on efficient idea generation as the primary effectiveness outcome and on studies that do not examine how or why organizations use brain-storming. We report a qualitative study of a product design firm that uses brainstorming sessions. These sessions had six important consequences for this firm, its design engineers, and its clients that are not evident in the brainstorming literature, or are reported but not labeled as effectiveness outcomes: (1) supporting the organizational memory of design solutions; (2) providing skill variety for designers; (3) supporting an attitude of wisdom (acting with knowledge while doubting what one knows); (4) creating a status auction (a competition for status based on technical skill); (5) impressing clients; and (6) providing income for the firm. This study suggests that when brainstorming sessions are viewed in organizational context and the "effectiveness at what" and "effectiveness for whom" questions are asked, efficiency at idea generation may deserve no special status as an effectiveness outcome. We propose a broader perspective for assessing brainstorming effectiveness in organizations.


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