How do you improve brainstorming?

Why do the loudest voices dominate brainstorming? Why doesn’t the best option always get picked?
Francesco | 09.03.16

If you are working in the business sector, chances are that you have already been involved in brainstorming sessions, many many brainstorming sessions...

Indeed, even this technique is quite old (advertising executive Alex Osborn wrote to have first employed it in 1938; Osborn, 1963), brainstorming is still the most popular group problem solving technique, a sort of default process for deliberately apply creative thinking in groups to find new ideas for solving virtually any kind of problem (Byron, 2012). Although there are some variants of this technique, most organisations practise a very simple version of brainstorming (which we call the 'traditional brainstorming'), which essentially consists in gathering a group of people together to solve a problem, following some simple rules: aim for quantity instead of quality, no criticism is allowed, crazy ideas are welcome, and users are encouraged to combine other ideas and to take another person’s ideas a step further.

The idea behind brainstorming is straightforward: Osborn was convinced that people are more creative when working in group, that is, hearing others' ideas spark more creativity and let us generate more new ideas.

Despite its popularity, traditional brainstorming has several flaws that strongly reduce its productivity and usefulness (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987, 1991; Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991).

The most important contribution to productivity loss is a cognitive problem called 'production blocking': waiting for own turn and listening to other people lowers attention and concentration needed for producing new ideas, thus blocking the production of new ideas and solutions.

Other relevant problems are due to socio-motivational processes: evaluation apprehension and free-riding. Although criticism is not allowed, it is hard to avoid the fear of evaluation when working in group, and this fear can lead to avoid the expression of crazy ideas and favouring the production of more traditional and socially acceptable ideas. Similarly, people that are more expansive tend to overpower the others ('loud voices win') and there is an it is an inhibiting effect of the presence of someone of higher status or someone who speaks with authority (Byron, 2012; this is another way to say that it's difficult to say nay to ideas produced by high-rank people).

Working in group means sharing the responsibility for the final outcome, and this usually lowers individual motivation. Therefore, sometimes people decide to deliberately working less harder than others (to 'free ride'), and this happens especially when the individual contribution is hard to recognize.

Moreover, there is overwhelming evidence that the combined output of individuals working alone (also called nominal groups) is better than of traditional brainstorming groups by a large margin both in terms of quantity and quality. So, Osborne's hypothesis that people produce more ideas when working in group has been demonstrated to be false. So, since these problems of brainstorming are not a secret anymore (mind you, the first paper showing the superiority of nominal groups over brainstorming groups was published in 1958!; Taylor, Berry, & Block, 1958), it seems natural for us to ask: 'Why is brainstorming still so popular?'

There are multiple answers to this question. First, this technique has a nice face validity. The notion that people produce more ideas when working in group is easy to understand and to embrace, unfortunately it's false. Second, there is a stronger desire with many people to meet when there is an opportunity to exercise their creativity, and brainstorming is usually considered as an enjoyable occasion to work with colleagues in a more engaging way away from the daily routine (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Byron, 2012). Third, engaging in brainstorming lead to what has been called 'illusion of productivity': brainstorming sessions usually end with a solution (or multiple solutions) to the problem, and anyone in the group tend to take credit for a disproportionate amount of the brainstorming activity (Pauhus et al., 1993). Lastly, we must admit that 'brainstorming' is a very powerful and suggestive name for a group creativity technique.

All in all, people meet in groups and use a nicely-named technique, which seems to be based on a sound theory, produce some results that they find useful, everybody feel involved, and the whole process is usually enjoyable, or at least better than the daily routine. Looking at things from this point of view, it's no more mystery why brainstorming is still so popular. This leads to another question: 'How to improve the productivity of group brainstorming?'

The first answer is straightforward: replace group brainstorming with nominal groups, that is let individuals work alone, and then pool the results. This approach, however, is usually not well-accepted. Two other methods have been developed to address the issues of traditional brainstorming: brainwriting and electronic brainstorming. Brainwriting consists in writing down ideas individually during a standard brainstorming sessions, this method should reduce production blocking (Van Gundy, 1984; Heslin, 2009). Electronic brainstorming has been developed with the aim of enabling nominal groups to share their ideas using personal computers and the net (Valacich, Dennis, & Connolly, 1994; Cooper et al., 1998).

Neonce: the new science-based way to brainstorm

There is also a new third way for better brainstorming. Here at Mindiply we have developed an innovative method, called Neonce evolved brainstorming, which takes the best from electronic brainstorming and brainwriting, removes all the cognitive and socio-motivational problems, and will move group productivity to the next level. You can find more details about the Neonce method here.

We have also developed the Neonce web application, the online tool for helping you and your team running great brainstorming sessions that actually solve problems and make you ready for action. Try it now here, it's free!

References

  • Byron, K. (2012). Creative reflections on brainstorming. London Review of Education, 10(2), 201-213.
  • Cooper, W., R. Gallupe, S. Pollard, and J. Cadsby. 1998. Some liberating effects of anonymous electronic brainstorming. Small Group Research 29: 147–78.
  • Diehl, M., and W. Stroebe. 1987. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Towards the solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53: 497–509.
  • Diehl, M., and W. Stroebe. 1991. Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: Tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61: 392–403.
  • Heslin, P. 2009. Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 82: 129–45.
  • Mullen, B., C. Johnson, and E. Salas. 1991. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: A meta-analytical integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 12: 3–23.
  • Osborn, A. 1963. Applied imagination. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Pauhus, P. B., Dzindolet, M. T., Poletes, G., & Camacho, L. M. (1993). Perception of performance in group brainstorming: The illusion of group productivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19(1), 78-89.
  • Taylor, D., P. Berry, and C. Block. 1958. Does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking? Administrative Science Quarterly 6: 22–47.
  • Valacich, J., A. Dennis, and T. Connolly. 1994. Idea generation in computer-based groups: A new ending to an old story. * Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 57: 448–67.
  • Van Gundy, A. 1984. Idea power: Techniques and resources to unleash the creativity in your organization. Human Resource Development Quarterly 5: 193–8.
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