Flawed Tools – Focus groups and brainstorming for ideas

My article about group methods for ideation, including focus groups and brainstorming was published in the May issue of the Journal of Product Innovation and Management. Regular readers of this (irregular) blog will know the key findings about the use of groups to generate innovative ideas. Individual interviews with users as suggested by Abbie Griffin in “Voice of the Customer” will outperform group methods (even adjusted for time). Compared to the group brainstorming, individual ideation will generate:

  1. More ideas,
  2. Better ideas on average, and
  3. The most innovative ideas. (Trifecta!)

The full paper is here: Using focus groups and brainstorming for user ideas.

Osborn introduced Brainstorming in a book in 1957, claiming that he had empirical evidence that a group brainstorming by his four key rules—(1) criticism not welcome; (2) freewheeling welcome; (3) quantity of ideas welcome; and (4) combining/improving ideas welcome—could produce twice as many ideas as individuals brainstorming alone and also produce better ideas.

However within a year, Taylor et al. (1958) conducted experiments, finding that the combined results of individual brainstorming outperformed groups in terms of the number, quality, and uniqueness of the ideas generated. As noted, subsequent research has strongly supported the inferiority of group methods.

Why then are brainstorming and focus groups still so widely used for product innovation ideas? (That question is the second half of the paper…)

Any thoughts??

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8 Responses to Flawed Tools – Focus groups and brainstorming for ideas

  1. We believe in using individual methods (e.g. uploading pictures or ideas on an individally moderated blog) with crowd interpretation in a second stage. We have built evidence that we can add between 20-40% of relevant arguments by having individual input looked at by a larger group of people in a second stage. If you would like more info, feel free to contact annelies@insites-consulting.com.

  2. gschirr says:


    Thanks for your reply. A “blended” approach seems appealing, but hasn’t tested well in the past.

    If you have evidence for your approach it would add to the discussion.

    Thanks again!


  3. Anonymous says:

    Hey Gary
    (I’m new here, I just got a following request from you on twitter and stop by the blog, You have great insights here I’ll keep an eye here from now on)

    In my experience the group part saved my life during college, when you are force to work as a team (and I’m very thankful of this, it changed the way I work). I do agree that in a first stage of ideation is a great way to get the conversation started, and even a great way to get the bad ideas out. In a way to build a map for you to get to the individual interview with some ideas.

    Individual interviews with users give you great insight about what they really need, and it’s something that has to be done on a early stage as well, because no brainstorm is going to give you those answers no matter how empathetic you are.

    I’ll keep on reading the blog!
    Consuelo M
    Service Designer

  4. gschirr says:


    Thanks for your comments!

    I agree that groups are valuable in numerous situations. I simply believe that it is important to keep the creativity-dampening effect of groups in mind..

    Nice to meet you!

    – Gary

  5. Dr. Schirr,

    We use something we call “focus groups” with neighborhood organizations and civic leagues in the regional long-range planning process. The structure works wells for our goals of stakeholder involvement. However, we don’t usually have the same product innovation goals as tech companies would. Still, I’m always looking for ways to make these exercises more relevant and useful, so it may be time to re-think the structure of what we do with neighborhood organizations.

  6. Your stuff is quite fascinating.

  7. Gary Schirr says:

    Well thank you! It is a relief to know that it is read!!

  8. I could not access the link ( Using focus groups and brainstorming for user ideas). Could you help about the paper?

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