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


No comments: