Brainstorming: Less Storm and More Brain
Many innovation drives are centered on the process of brainstorming. The technique was originally developed and propagated by Alex Osborn in 1953 in his book Applied Imagination. In essence brainstorming is where a group of people come together and within certain rules of interaction, generate ideas to find a solution for a problem. Osborn laid down four rules to govern the process:
- Focus on quantity of ideas and not quality
- Withhold criticism of other’s ideas
- Welcome unusual and outlandish ideas
- Combine, build on and improve the ideas of others.
These rules are to reduce social inhibition, increase the inventiveness of the group and spark creative new ideas – all based on the assumption that group thinking is superior to individual thinking.The technique is widely used. IDEO’s founder Tom Kelly says: “Brainstorming is the idea engine of IDEO’s culture.” Designers at the company spend 5% to 10% of their time engaged in brainstorming sessions.
Yet, even shortly after Osborn came up with his technique, a study at Yale University found that individuals working by themselves have almost twice as many innovative ideas as groups formed into brainstorming groups.
Since then a substantial body of evidence shows that when it comes to producing new ideas, groups are less effective than the same number of people working alone who later pool their ideas. Research shows individuals working on their own produce both more and better quality ideas. These research results are surprising to many as brainstorming is fun and enjoyable, and more than not improves team cohesion.
What then are the problems with traditional brainstorming?
While one is talking and expounding their idea, others need to listen which detracts from their own mental processes in coming up with something of their own. For many it is simply difficult to think optimally while one is listening to someone else speaking. In a brainstorm session the thoughts of many does not function as best it can as they need to listen to whoever is speaking at the time.
In a hierarchy, the highest ranking person present often openly or subtly influences the thinking and ideas of others. The CEO’s affirmative nodding or his slightly irritated frown when an idea is expressed - subtle cues which are easily detected by the underlings - steer the direction of a discussion and the further contribution for the “smiled-upon” or the “frowned-upon” group members. Deference and ingratiation is close by when rank is present, which in a corporate environment is almost always.
Sometimes the best idea in a group is expressed by a highly original employee who is somewhat of a social outsider. But motivated by maintaining social cohesion and harmony the rest of the group settles on the one idea everyone is most comfortable with. The group understanding expands only in small stretches from the status quo and the more risky but potentially excellent idea is left behind.
Groups may get unduly anchored to the direction of a discussion in various ways. The first idea is proclaimed as brilliant and the remaining discussion trails in that direction. Those that tend to talk first in a gathering are those that set the tone and direction and anchor the discussion. Experts in their field invariably provide anchor points. These anchors may or may not be optimal. The danger again lies in letting the opinions of the minions go unexplored.
With the shortcomings of brainstorming in mind, can a form of brainstorming still work? Yes, it can and here are ways in which to do so.
Clearly specify goals. Osborn himself pointed out that “Meetings drift aimlessly when a clear statement of the problem is lacking”. Define the problem or objective well to aim the discussion in the right direction and keep it from going on tangents too far removed from central question. Often a solution lies in the very process of defining what is actually to be solved. To generate an idea or solve a problem, form a well-articulated description with just the right level of specificity.
Have a facilitator. Research shows that having an objective facilitator to steer the discussion leads to more ideas generated than groups with no facilitation. Facilitators are objective, not part of the hierarchy and neutralize the natural pecking order. In particular it has been found that in the final five minutes of a typical twenty minute brainstorm session, groups with facilitators generate exponentially more ideas than groups without.
Use brainwriting as opposed to brainstorming. A simple and effective way is to use what is called method 635. The figures stand for the sequence: six people each generate three ideas and write them down on a sheet of paper. They then pass along the sheets five times with each person adding new thoughts to each sheet of paper. A method 635 session takes only about five minutes and is particularly effective in generating names or slogans.
Allow incubation periods to let ideas simmer. If you give the team a break – often solutions arise when they come back to the problem the next day. Sometimes ideas come to us when we are doing something moderately taxing and daydreaming at the same time. Psychologists call this Unconscious Thought Theory which proposes that solutions to complex problems often come when we are intentionally not trying to solve them.
Let individuals create ideas, and use groups to select ideas. Various studies show that while individuals left to their own devices are better at generating new ideas, but groups are better at selecting the optimal one. Let each to his own produce ideas – but then use the group to select and hone the optimal ones.
Brainstorming is not a stand-alone event. It represents an exercise in divergent thinking and as such is only part of the process on innovation. Evaluating, combining and applying these ideas is the important remaining part and is a process of convergent thinking. Both are important for innovation.
(Source: R. K Sawyer. The Science of Human Innovation: Explaining Creativity. Oxford University Press. New York. 2012)