Why brainstorming doesn't always work

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If you've ever been on a web meeting or conference call that was designed to brainstorm, only to have it be more like a mild shower, you know how frustrating it is. The problem may not be with the distance (although Lord knows, it doesn't help). It might be with the whole concept of brainstorming itself.

I recently spoke to Deborah Loosemore, who is from the Canadian company, Powernoodle. They have a software tool that helps create and run online meetings and brainstorming sessions. A large number of professional facilitators and consultants are using it with clients around the world. I asked her about some of the challenges of getting people to generate good ideas.

What are some of the human dynamics that get in the way of successful brainstorming?
Brainstorming as most of us know it, where a group gathers to consider an open-ended question, has been shown by researchers over and over again to not live up to its hype.

Measuring the output of brainstorming groups has show that when a group is structured so that individuals brainstorm in their own, then come together to evaluate the ideas, that group generates more ideas, and more creative ideas, than when people get together and throw their ideas on the table (or the wall, or sticky notes, or whiteboards...you get the idea).

When it comes to generating creative ideas, interacting too soon - at the idea generating stage rather than at the evaluating stage - kills productivity.

Why is this? In a group brainstorm, people easily fall into some classic traps that block creativity:

  • social loafing - letting other people do the work, or not wanting to look like the sucker who is doing all the work
  • evaluation apprehension - fear of looking foolish or of offering a dissenting opinion
  • production blocking - competition for attention

Some researchers have gone so far as to say that the traditional brainstorming process actually places barriers in front of talented and motivated people that want to find creative solutions and make well-considered decisions.

What can a good leader do to mitigate some of these problems?
In any group process, leadership is required for success. Interestingly, even If there is no apparent leader, the group will nominate one. In the traditional brainstorm process, the facilitator or leader can take steps to mitigate production blocking, by actively supporting individuals when they are voicing their ideas, or introducing non-verbal (sticky notes for instance) ways for people to record their ideas.

The facilitator then of course has the chore of documenting all of the ideas, attempting to formulate an action plan and reporting back to the group at a later date.

If a business problem requires creativity and efficiency, facilitators should encourage people to work alone to come up with ideas, and then to come together to evaluate the ideas and move to an action plan. Convening the group at this stage builds support for the decision. Leaders should also set targets for quality of ideas and how they are presented.

How can software or technology help (or hinder) the process to get better results?
Running meetings with brainstorming software has several advantages over traditional brainstorming. Researchers have found that using brainstorming software that has people working on their own to populate a list of ideas and then collaborating to evaluate the ideas and decide on an action plan, has a number of advantages:

  • individuals are more productive - the group will see more ideas, and the ideas will be more creative
  • the ideas flow faster
  • the group will be more committed to the decisions
  • documentation will be more thorough and more easily shared
  • when the group gets larger, the productivity and efficiency remain high. This is not the case in traditional brainstorming where productivity falls as the group gets bigger.
  • cash savings can be significant as meetings are shorter
  • subject matter experts are more effectively leveraged as they can contribute to many more projects in the same amount of time

One of the differences between Powernoodle and some of the other tools out there is it allows for anonymous answers and feedback. This is a somewhat controversial feature as it flies in the face of what most people think are the basic tenets of idea generating and gives people who fear sniping and politics heart palpitations. Still, it's an intriguing idea.

Of course, what Deborah didn't say is that none of this cool technology matters a darn if the leader isn't aware of the group dynamics and is willing to step up and really facilitate the session. As with all meeting technology, it's only as good as the alignment, drive and motivation of the organization, the team and its leaders.

How is traditional brainstorming working for your teams, especially remote and virtual teams? Maybe it's time to think a little differently.

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OLDER COMMENTS

while we work on importing them to the new system!

I agree with your comments here. However, what you have written is what most people do and not the way to facilitate a competent brainstorm.

We teach our facilitators to conduct an effective brainstorm that can be taken into action planning. It incorporates all the thinking styles in a way that avoids groupthink and maximizes creativity. We also have a sleep on it policy so that people take what was done in the brainstorm and bring back new insights.

Brainstorming over the phone is a bad idea. Good brainstorming that compliments innovation should be done face to face and in a fun/protected setting that can incorporate 1-2 days of creativity retreat.

There should be breaks with very fun and physical things to do like shooting hoops, playing nerf darts and walking along the river or plucking sea shells off the sea shore so that affinity teams have time together to spark ideas as well.

The design also needs to incorporate some cave time for people where fast paced creativity becomes exhausting.

We teach good teams to embrace their diversity so that the highest and best is always the outcome of their time together.

Dianne

How many of you (readers) have brainstormed before?

If you think you have, you most likely haven't.

There are many, many ways to do it wrong. It takes training to get the process down. But when it is done right, the results never fail to amaze!

(Remember: divergence must be followed by convergence - and only in that order)

Mike W Minneapolis, MN

It's not the brainstorming that doesn't work, it's the way in which that "brainstorming" is allowed to proceed! I'll grant you that SOME brainstorming before gathering together has merit. It produces some familiarity for participants and helps the group efforts to get a good start. BUT I do believe some brainstorming when together is good; one person's idea could raise a totally new area of brainstorming. Participants ALL need to be committed to the process and encourage everyone's participation WITHOUT ANY EVALUATION OR RANKING OF IDEAS AT THE BRAINSTORMING HASE!

JCBJR Connecticut

Great article! I have experienced your sample scenerio many times- coming together to brainstorm an idea and leaving with nothing more than a thousand different ideas and being no closer to getting things narrowed down.

It's quite obvious that the best way to make these meetings streamlined is to do as much brainstorming ahead of time. Recently a friend participated on a Strategic Planning team. Throughout each step of the process there was intense individual time to formulate ideas, research, brainstorm and reformulate. By the time the group met to discuss the step, each person has a detailed otuline of their ideas and the group was more equipped to add and delete. If they met as a group from the beginning, there woudl have been so many "details" to get through they'd never narrow things down. Having the nitty-gritty already researched allowed the larger group to then add in creative and innovative ideas that the original person never thought of. The group was able to take the orignial "brainstormed idea" and help it evolve into an even better idea. In the end, each team was able to compile some fantastic plans that will ultimately take their organization far. Ken Schmitt www.turningpointsearch.net

Ken Schmitt

It's great to read this blog. I'd also add that the physical environment can add to, or block, brainstorming. If the ceiling is low, it supprts decision-making and focus - and thus works against creativity and innovation. If the ceiling is high, discussions and thoughts can be more creative. Some marketing agencies adjust the environment by washing the walls with different coloured lights. Mood music is more controversial though, because what relaxes you may stimulate me - or vice versa! best wishes, Helen

Helen Caton Hughes United Kingdom

I've used it many times and it DOES work. Maybe my process is a bit different, but the basics of free-flow brainstorming still works in this context. 1) introduce the topic, define scope if that helps 2) work individually writing down your ideas 3) share your ideas with the group 4) apply group brainstorming, building on and adding to what the group already came up with 5) etc. This method has a few primary benefits: 1) no-one is talking, much, when the initial ideas are generated, so the flow should be easier 2) if there is any duplication discovered in the sharing stage, that can be confirmation of some good ideas, or the opposite, evidence of group-think.

I gave the same brainstorm challenge to 2 similar groups of participants, one using the above process and the control group using "standard" brainstorming methods, and consistently got 10-20% more ideas from the group using the above process. It combines independent work with group work, leveraging the best of both worlds.

Brainstorming can work if you set and agree on the ground rules, everyone follows them, and you mix it up with some private work to take advantage of different work styles.

terry Arizona

Unfortunately, the newly-popular (or more correctly, again popular) idea that generating ideas with a group doesnít work is being espoused by people, like Ms. Loosemore, who apparently donít really understand the research. Ms. Loosemore has followed the current trend on this topic of citing only a few pieces of research, most with flawed designs, that appear to support the claim. Meanwhile, an entire body of research with the opposite conclusions is ignored. Professionals in the creative problem solving field know that brainstorming does work, extremely well, when done correctly. When done casually, by people who arenít trained in how to do it correctly, it shouldnít be surprising when it doesnít work very well. That is not to say that individual thinking has no place in creative problem solving. Certainly it does have a significant role to play. However, so does group brainstorming, and there is much evidence to support that. If you're interested, email me and I'll send you links to several good articles that give a more complete picture.

Susan Robertson Orlando, FL, USA

Your comments on brainstorming are legitimate. I would suggest you to read the book "Six Thinking Hats" from Edward de Bono. The term Six Thinking Hats is used to describe the tool for group discussion and individual thinking reagrding new ideas. The approach is like a "structured" brainstorming. I have been using this technic for the last 20 years and it is very powerful. Andre

Andre California

The author seems conflicted in this article. In my experience running brainstorming sessions for clients, the best ideas are sent out to market research. They may or may not be innovative. We just did a session for a client which reported back on earlier customer research indicating the economics were off on a truly innovative product, so the client figured out a way to rework the product in a brainstorming session led by us. John Heinrich Chief Mentor, American School of Entrepreneurship www.theasoe.com

John Heinrich Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

Taking part in face-to-face brainstorming sessions, either as a facilitator or a participant, is one of my favorite things to do at work. With so many virtual teams, though, it gets harder and harder to bring people together.

We run into roadblocks with time, travel (especially the cost) and other barriers. Plus, the research doesn't support face-to-face brainstorming. (See Jonah Lehrer's article in The Yorker earlier this year, Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth. So we need to explore options, especially when face-to-face isn't feasible. That's one of the reasons why I'm doing more and more idea gathering and brainstorming through social media channels and through collaboration technology, such as Powernoodle. These relatively new methods are especially powerful when you can combine them with face-to-face meetings.

For example, for one organization with members spread across the United States and Canada, I'm facilitating them to create several elements that will feed into their new strategic plan. Specifically, a group of members are contributing ideas to the SWOTT and mission statement, via Powernoodle. We'll use the results in the one short face-to-face meeting we have to develop our ideas, prepare our plan and develop the action plan.

For me and the members, this is a great way to think big and bold within the time and travel constraints in which we're living and operating.

Liz Guthridge San Francisco Bay Area

Hi,

I think the success of brainstorming depends on the scope of the subject. It seems powerful for developing ideas for e.g. marketing campaign where scope is narrow. But when when it was used to generate new products ideas where scope is wide, I have seen it failing.

I think the reason is that in marketing ideas matter and almost nothing is impossible and therefore idea generation can be expansive. Products instead are subtle "compromises" between ideas, needs, technology, markets et. therefore they are much more than developed ideas.

Using brainstorming in new product development requires slicing the big subject in smaller subjects e.g markets, technologies etc. Combining "compromises" is best done by individuals or groups of two to three people over the longer time.

Tuomo Truh Finland

What's interesting about this article are the comments. It's a brainstorm about brainstorming techniques. I've been a software entrepreneur for enabling public and private idea contests for the last 10 years for Fortune 500 global brands.

There are so many paths to innovation, there is no "single" formula or methodology that consistently leads to great ideas or innovations. However, there are ingredients that are catalysts -- small self-organized teams, passion and proximity. Software helps organize and manage ideas and anonymity isn't sustainable. In my view technology can't replace the power of people's passion felt in close proximity.

Anil Rathi Los Angeles

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