Beware The Brainstorming Trap!

Studies show that people generate more and better ideas when they work quietly alone with their thoughts than when brainstorming in a group.

By Larry Kendall, author of Ninja Selling and chairman of The Group, Inc.

“What is a camel? It is a horse designed by a committee!” Have you ever heard this example of brainstorming and collaboration gone amuck? Have you had this happen in your organization? You look back and realize your leadership team made a less-than-optimal decision. How did such smart people make such a dumb decision? Author Susan Cain offers us important insights on how to bring out the best in our people. One of her keys is to brainstorm properly.

Susan Cain is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Quiet, The Power of introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She was a keynote speaker at this year’s National Association of Realtors® Conference in Orlando. Her message—Understanding how to properly use brainstorming, collaboration and teams in creativity, innovation and decision-making is a key to your organization’s success.

The concept of brainstorming is credited to Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who wrote several books on the subject in the 1940s and 1950s. Brainstorming is a process in which group members generate ideas in a nonjudgmental atmosphere.

Osborn’s brainstorming had four rules:

  1. Don’t judge or criticize ideas.
  2. Be freewheeling. The wilder the idea, the better.
  3. Go for quantity. The more ideas you have, the better.
  4. Build on the ideas of fellow group members.

The popularity of Osborn’s brainstorming format led to all of us, at some point, finding ourselves cooped up with colleagues in a room full of whiteboards, markers and a peppy facilitator encouraging us to free associate. Here’s the problem, 40 years of scientific research shows that group brainstorming doesn’t actually work!

Studies show that people generate more and better ideas when they work quietly alone with their thoughts than when brainstorming in a group. Performance gets worse as group size increases. And, participants usually believe their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity. Group brainstorming makes people feel attached. Team building is a worthy goal so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity or good decisions, is the principal benefit of brainstorming.

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming.

  1. Social loafing. In a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. Sometimes the entire group sits back! Nobody is taking responsibility.
  2. Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other members are forced to sit passively. A few people tend to take over the meeting.
  3. Evaluation apprehension. There is a fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers. Peer pressure can lead to groupthink.

Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham writes, “The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

What works? How do we bring the best ideas and decisions out of our people? Cain offers this modern brainstorming template:

  1. Give everyone on your leadership team the assignment (topic, decision to be made) in advance. Encourage them to put some serious thought into it, because they will be required to present their ideas at the meeting.
  2. If you can’t give them the assignment in advance of the meeting, give them some quiet time during the meeting to organize their thoughts. Take a break if necessary.
  3. Encourage the Introverts to present their ideas first. Ideas spoken early in a group tend to become the key anchoring ideas. When extroverts go first and present with their usual enthusiasm, the Introverts (with good ideas as well) tend to shut down and may not speak up.
  4. After getting all the well-thought-out ideas on the table, facilitate the discussion by encouraging all members to give their input.

Cain’s book is packed with research that shows two things for today’s leader. First, traditional brainstorming is a trap that leads to less than optimal ideas and decisions, and second, the modern brainstorming template described above yields better decisions, ideas and innovation. It brings out the best in the group and is more likely to create a racehorse instead of a camel.

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