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Difference Between Innovation And Creativity In Business
21 Jun 2012

Making Group Brainstorming More Effective And Innovative

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series Creative Innovation

Group brainstorming by itself is not that effective.

There is no wide-spread evidence that group brainstorming works well.

When leaders try to drive creativity and innovation in their organizations, they frequently jump into holding group brainstorming sessions. This not only creates huge inefficiencies, but it is also dubious whether group brainstorming is effective.

The Research on Group Brainstorming

In The New Yorker’s January 30, 2012 edition, Jonah Lehrer tackles group brainstorming in, “Groupthink – The Brainstorming Myth.” The problem, as Lehrer states, is that culturally we are biased towards groups. For instance, he cites that science papers by multiple authors or teams of scientists are six times more likely to receive citations.

Even though Alex Osborn launched brainstorming and other ideas in his book, Your Creative Power, in 1948, Keith Sawyer at Washington University summarized for Lehrer the research on brainstorming this way:

Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

Proven Tweak Gives Better Results

Group brainstorming takes a lot of time for small results. Worse, it does not teach people to solve problems on their own. It subtly says, “You need a group to solve things.” We need to teach employees how to solve creatively. We need to give them the confidence to do this.

In real life, big ideas break down into many small actions. We cannot make all the decisions on these small actions at the enterprise level. We do not want to either.

That means small teams make them. Further down it means lone employees make them. It is at this lowest level where they must deal with the devil’s details.

I have seen too much what Sawyer reports. Have people work alone, pool their ideas and then bring them together. I did this for the first time over fifteen years ago with four team members.

Many thoughts were similar.Still, with each about 20% differed. This fascinated them. They spent time looking at how their lists differed. It ramped up their interest and motivation. It ramped up their participation.

Yes, this is more work on the team leader or project manager. The return is worth it. The team’s buy in is worth it. It says their unique views are important. It becomes hands-on training of creative problem-solving skills. Postpone group brainstorming. You will be glad you did. I was.


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11 Responses

  1. Excellent point, Mike! When people are “brainstorming” together, they tend to piggy-back off of one another’s ideas instead of presenting unique and innovative ideas. “Isolated thunderstorms” seem as they would be more effective ;-D

    1. Thank you, Doug, for the compliment and creative word play! I appreciate it. Yes, you’re right, instead of having people present their different – and potentially valuable – perspectives, they will tend to produce only one perspective from this piggy-backing. Thank you for visiting and contributing!

  2. Francis

    Great piece, Mr. Lehr, although I would subtly suppress references to Jonah Lehrer as we cannot tell how much of his ‘work’ was actual findings and which was pure fraud.
    There are many other articles (in Forbes and The Atlantic, notably) that have purported similar ideas without engaging in intellectual abuse.

    1. Thank you for the warning and suggestions, Francis. I appreciate it. As a policy and a point of curiosity, I investigate the citations writers make in their articles. I often find very valuable additional information and research. I did investigate the citations I used from Jonah Lehrer’s article and found them worthy. If I erred, please tell me. I appreciate citations and links to corrections so I can make my corrections more easily. I do want to thank you for visiting and would welcome a return. ~Mike

  3. Pingback : Creative Innovation (Pt 1): Postpone Group Brai...

  4. I agree with this in two ways: (1) I believe in CONSIDERATIONS first always – to prepare each participant to be a contributor; in the process of doing this, ideas will certainly come to mind. And (2) I agree with Keith Sawyer’s notion of sharing these ideas when for sure the list of options will both start out longer AND will grow from participants building on another’s idea.

    With regard to moving forward first to select and then to deal with a chosen idea, I’m a firm believer in the late Stephen Covey’s notion of seeking “The Better Alternative” – one that EVERY participant feels is better than the one she/he championed at the start of the process.

    1. Mike Lehr

      The interplay of both individual and collective approaches is important, John. The problem is that we often jump right into group brainstorming, thus encouraging group think.

      Yes, Stephen Covey’s notion of “The Better Alternative” is a good one. I have found though that many apply his concepts piecemeal without considering the context of his entire body of work. For example, Covey also has methods for avoiding group think which could easily result from applying The Better Alternative as an isolated, dominant principle. One of the challenges is overcoming humans natural propensity for grasping a single idea and implementing it rather than implement many inter-related ideas.

  5. Einstein stated in one of his essays on humanity that we – humans – are unique in the animal kingdom in that we need both individualism and a strong society. I think his thoughts apply here.

    BTW, I really enjoy your writing.

    1. Mike Lehr

      They certainly do, Arizona. They also apply in sales situations where people attend a seminar (group) and then have a sales rep (individual) follow up, teaching too where teachers present a topic (group) and then work individually as needed. There are many applications in existence.

      Thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it. Please tell others!! ~Mike

  6. Like most things, it is a question of balance. Individuals have good ideas but do not ignore the reality that ALL of us know more than any of us. There are good tools to balance individual and tabletop and workgroup ideas – things like projection and dot-voting and similar.

    1. Mike Lehr

      You’re right about balance, Scott. That’s why the title says “Postpone” rather than “Eliminate.” It’s best if people will document that knowledge before grouping.

      I’m preparing another post based on research showing that much of the extra knowledge you reference is suppressed in group interactions depending upon the prevalence of two personality attributes in the group. The other thing to consider though is that while it’s correct that ALL know more than ONE, it’s not really a matter of knowledge but how that knowledge is interpreted and related to the problem at hand. For example, historical evidence is showing that experts in an ancillary discipline have historically been the ones more likely to come up with a successful new product than the experts in that discipline. The ability to associate knowledge from one field to another is an aptitude that varies much by individual. So, if these folks aren’t in your ALL group, the ONE will still be better at doing this. I once had a CIO tell me, “Mike, I just don’t see how someone who is not in IT can help me come up with a new idea [in IT].”

      Still, this only enhances your point, balance is key, and there are many things to balance when it comes to new ideas.

      Thank you for visiting and commenting, Scott.

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