Why brainstorming doesn't always work

Jul 12 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

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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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.