Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three Ways to Improve Group Brainstorming

Brainstorming has come under heavy criticism by academics in recent years. Originally developed by Alex Osborn in 1953, his promise to turn groups into creative idea-producers has not lived up to the hype. Current research repeatedly shows that although people might feel more creative in a group, the raw number of ideas developed and the originality of those ideas are consistently inferior to individuals working alone.

Yet, groups are a necessary part of working life, to innovate, make decisions and get work done. What can be done then to improve the quantity and quality of the ideas within a group setting?

Build in Time for Individual Thinking

When our minds have time to wander, ideas bubble up. Common answers to the question, “Where and when do you get your best ideas?” are driving the car, the shower or bathtub, walking, reading or noticing something that triggers an idea for something completely unrelated.

How can we duplicate this in the workplace?

The key is to provide some structure for reflecting on a problem by allowing each person in the group time to ponder in advance of the meeting. A pre-group meeting worksheet of open-ended questions is one tool, to be filled out voluntarily. If provided well in advance, ideas will have time to percolate even when a person is not actually filling in the questionnaire The ideas generated will be more in number and novelty and can be drawn upon throughout the group discussion.

Be Open to and Encourage Dissent

We have a tendency to bend to the loudest voices in a group or the consensus too early without considering a variety of options. That undermines the eventual quality of the decisions.

But, if a group deliberately takes time to respect a minority view, premature adoption of an idea is offset. Some studies show that it takes only one “authentic” dissenter to reduce conformity by two-thirds. That doesn’t mean someone should be a “devil’s advocate” for the sake of it. The easy way to manufacture dissent is for someone in the group to encourage members to challenge assumptions, to take a “360 view” of the situation.

Try Speedstorming

Speedstorming is a structured social interaction something like speeddating. It has been used successfully by researchers at a conference or other such group meetings to find potential collaborators. Since two to three people often create more ideas mainly because they have more “air time” than in a larger group, speedstorming could be one way to structure an exploration for good ideas and solutions for any situation.

Imagine pairs of chairs in a line facing each other equating to the number of persons in the group. A person is seated in each chair. For five minutes each person-pair shares ideas about a particular dilemma or goal, preferably developed by each individual in advance of the initial pairing. Each person adds to her own list. “Aha’s” are noted. Then, one person moves while the other stays seated and the exercise is repeated.

After the exercise, reconvene the group or groups for a fresh look at the challenge with many more ideas at hand.

These three methods and variations thereof help to focus a search for new and useful ideas, lessen the tendency to “group think” and mute the growth of an “us and them” dynamic. They enhance what Alex Osborn and other creativity experts know is fundamental to “thinking outside the box”: generating ideas (diverging) and assessing them (converging). The updated twist is two-fold: provide conditions for individual thinking whenever possible (or at least in pairs or triads) and let in/weave in the “dissenting” notions as they arise. The hard and fast rule of not judging while creating actually reduces the quantity and quality of ideas.

Combining Individual and Group Thinking

Fighting group think


Friday, July 23, 2010

How to reduce government:scare away the young folks

It's walking the fine line of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not being captive to them.

---Stephen Harper, CBC Radio Interview

Watch what you wish for, as the saying goes. The fine leadership line has to be the right one and one of the styles clearly unworkable for Gen X and Y is not “my way or the highway” or something mushy called “positive leadership”. They want the right kind of leadership at the right time, often characterized by “What do you think?” or “What do you know?” or “How can we get to this exciting goal?”. Come to think of it, so do baby boomers. But, they are already captive and awaiting their pensions.

The latest skirmish between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and federal civil servants on the Stats Canada long survey (now to be made voluntary which messes up the reliability of the data) illustrates to the younger generations that only the submissive should apply to the federal government for a job. It’s a brilliant strategy by a leader who wants to downsize without having to pay the costs of letting people go. Decide what you want in advance. Pretend that you have consulted. Pay no attention to any contrary evidence. Stare down the protesters, many of whom are experts in their fields about the matter in question. Do what you want anyway. The downsizing takes care of itself quite tidily. Speeds up the numbers who can retire but haven’t. Scares off any talented folks, especially the young, who want to make a difference.

Gen X and Gen Y want to be involved in decision-making, want to feel that their opinions count and most certainly to have fun. A dictatorial culture of fear is not on their checklist as a nice place to work. Further, as a highly educated bunch, they know a thing or two about “the truth”. The evidence from research does merit serious consideration in the decision making process. Debate, dissent and “brainstorming” help steer the path to solutions that have lasting value.

All generations and cultures value authoritative leadership: being visionary and passionate about a cause, valuing teamwork and getting the job done. Few like authoritarian leadership as it muffles wonderful talent and the potential for great innovation. Stephen Harper may only have meant that his opinion matters too and that he should be "authoritative" as a leader. But, in practice, his fine line seems to be bending toward "push" than "positive".

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Longer View on Change

How long change does take! With starry eyes way back when Canada and I were younger, I envisioned progress as a given. My mother, Margie, a fighter for all things unfair, had infused me with hope and possibilities. Surely the only way was up. But not so fast!

Well, on the whole, we are making progress: more democracies worldwide, more educated women in developed countries, many communicable diseases long gone, lower crimes rates, an acceptance that we have something to do with global warming, an African-American U.S. President and growing cross-cultural understanding everywhere. Much to celebrate.

But, wait. In developed countries, although women outnumber men in university, men still are the majority in leadership positions and hold most of the wealth, as Michael Adams, President of Environics reports. Many studies contend that women still do the majority of household tasks (that could be a key reason for women not being in many boardrooms!). In urban Canada, multiculturalism reigns but the sea of leadership faces is still largely white (my observations). Vaclav Smil, author of Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, estimates that a global pandemic is a 100% certainty in the not too distant future. He also says that it will take about 50 years to wean ourselves off fossil fuels on a large scale. Even David Suzuki, Canada’s foremost environmental evangelist is resigned to the slow pace of change!

So, I get it: change is non-linear and takes far more time than we expect. As with climate change, weather is erratic yet we can detect patterns in the climate over long periods of time and plan accordingly. Being adept at adapting and monitoring how to adapt and shape some events are the aces up our sleeves. As long as we have patience: this may take 100 years or more!

I now know what the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove means. Our day-to-day beliefs come from established theories but what about beliefs based on theories in progress?