Brainstorming Is Broken: Rethinking Group Dynamics

Creativity means looking at things differently. So let’s look differently at creativity, itself — and consider how we can do a better job of inspiring it in today’s collaborative workplace.

Creative Collaboration: What Works?

At Achievers, we recognize that no two people are the same. That’s why we’re advocates for personalized work environments. Every individual responds differently to public versus private praise, monetary versus intrinsic motivation, and other other aspects of employee engagement. So why do brainstorming practices tend to overlook those factors? When teams are asked to generate innovative ideas, why do we expect the best results by asking everyone to operate in a similar way?

Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration,” says that we should rethink multiple assumptions about collaboration and creativity. Research by Leigh and others indicates that established brainstorming practices can actually limit the flow of creative thinking, and potentially jeopardize successful outcomes. For example, many people assume that it’s best for contributors to meet in the same location, and openly share ideas in an environment that’s free from critical feedback. However, real-world evidence suggests otherwise.

3 Ways To Rethink Brainstorming

The next time you need to challenge your team to generate big ideas, consider a fresh approach. Specifically, look for ways to allow for alone time, anonymity, and criticism:

1) Work Together, But Alone

For some of us, ideas flow more freely when we write on a whiteboard whatever comes to mind as we stand in front of a group. Others prefer to reflect on a problem before joining a brainstorm session. Often, taking time to work on a problem alone sparks an idea that would otherwise not surface in a group setting.

Give your team members time to generate possible solutions on their own, and frame the brainstorm meeting as a time to share, develop and refine those raw concepts. Employees who get nervous in group settings are able to prepare, and those who are most creative in the company of others get a chance to find and express their own inspiration.

2) Allow Anonymity

To avoid the effects of groupthink and hierarchy bias, introduce anonymity to the creative process. Leigh Thompson suggests that groups use index cards to collect suggestions, and choose the best options through a “blind” vote. Another technique is “cyberstorming,” which allows team members to anonymously enter ideas and votes in a database.

These methods level the playing field for those who are shy, new or have little seniority. They can also mitigate the influence of “loudmouth” participants who tend to dominate group interactions. Ultimately, it ensures that ideas will be rated according to their perceived value, not on the title or behavior of the person submitting them.

3) Encourage Criticism

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Any idea is a good idea in a brainstorm.” However, science proves otherwise. For example, in a UC Berkeley study on brainstorming, psychology professor Charlan Nemeth found that when participants were instructed not to criticize teammates, fewer solutions were generated. On the other hand, when participants were encouraged to debate (but not attack) ideas, they contributed significantly more ideas than their “no criticism” counterparts.

By opening the floor to debate, all team members are encouraged to consider ideas from their unique perspective, and they tend to add value by suggesting with more ways to go about it. Try this approach in your next meeting and see how it works for your team.

Reignite Your Group’s Creative Fire

Brainstorming still holds an important place in the business world. However, to gain even more from this process, it’s wise to reexamine how you apply it in your organization. Consider how you can address the unique creative and collaborative styles of your team members, and you’re likely to see a dramatic difference in how they respond.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried any of the suggested techniques? What brainstorming conditions have made a difference in your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments area.

Image Credit: Stock.xchng