How often have you been in a meeting where someone, often your manager, said, “let’s brainstorm some ideas?” If you are working in a professional position, probably a lot. After the suggestion is made, people start tossing out ideas. But, did you know that research over the last two decades has consistently demonstrated that this is a relatively poor way to generate ideas?
The formal method of “brainstorming” was popularized by ad executive Alex Faickney Osborn in his 1950s book Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed some rules for generating ideas, and he asserted that the method enabled groups to double their creative output. Since then, the term “brainstorming” has come to mean all forms of generating ideas, although Osborn’s rules are often not followed.
Perhaps surprisingly, even when Osborn’s traditional rules are followed, brainstorming has been shown in research to produce inferior results in terms of both quantity and quality of ideas. Two primary reasons for this are as follows:
- Production blocking. People with stronger, more eloquent, or more authoritative voices tend to take over the meeting and control the conversation, marginalizing people who like to think more before speaking or who are not as comfortable speaking out in the group (Kerr & Tindale, 2004). This is particularly true if the stronger voices are also higher level managers.
- Information cascading. The initial ideas that are spoken set the tone for what is socially acceptable, and others in the group subconsciously adapt to that tone, leaving out ideas that seem at variance because of fear of being rejected by the group (Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., & Welch, I., 1992; 1998). For example, consider a group that is brainstorming where to go to lunch. The first person to speak says “How about somewhere near, like Le Maison?” Then, the rest of the ideas will tend to other nearby places, even though other possibilities further away might have been worth the trip to the overall group.
If brainstorming is bad, what is better? Research has shown that it is better to let each person think up an idea first to themselves and then give their idea independently to the group. This is called nominal group technique. Once each person has given an independent idea, the best idea can be chosen using a variety of methods. Despite its imposing name—which is why I often call it the “roundtable” method—the nominal group technique is highly effective and fun method. Most people find it rewarding to participate in, because even though some people have to limit themselves, everyone gets to participate.
For a quick generation of ideas, like where to go for lunch, just ask everybody to think to themselves for 15 seconds and then have each person state an idea. For a more robust generation of ideas on important topics, you can use the outline below.
- Prior to the meeting where ideas will generated, let everyone know that it is important to show up on time and stay for the duration of the meeting. Time can be adjusted for smaller or larger groups. Small groups with less than five people and noncontroversial issues could be done in an hour; groups of ten or more people with tough issues would take several hours.
- Determine a trigger question, such as “What are the main obstacles to this proposal?”
- Have participants think to themselves for two to three minutes. Instruct them to write down their responses to the trigger question.
- After the participants have had a chance to think to themselves, explain to them that you will ask for each person’s top response. They should use these guidelines:
- Give their single top response. If it already given, provide the next top response.
- Do not critique the responses of others
- Asking clarifying questions is ok
- Do not hijack the topic on to another issue or personal passion.
- Participant can pass if they do not have anything they want to share.
- Begin collecting responses. Use these guidelines:
- Write down the responses verbatim where everyone can seem them. Try to avoid paraphrasing or putting it in your own words; rather capture it exactly as it is said and if in doubt, ask them: “Does this capture what you said?”
- Maintain the ground rules. It is important that the person feels heard by the group. Maintaining an environment free of critique and capturing their literal statements supports this.
- Be prepared for the rules to be broken early on. You will have to intervene. Here are some approaches you can use.
- Participant starts to give more than one answer: Stop them and say, “Let us give just one answer now, so that everyone gets a chance. We’ll come back around until you’ve had a chance to give all your responses.”
- Participant critiques another: “Can I ask you to hold that until later? Once we have all the responses out, we will have a discussion on them.”
- Participant takes off on another topic: “Can you write that down as one of your responses, and we will come back to you and capture it when it is your turn again?”
- Someone arrives late: Stop and explain rules to them.
- Someone has to leave early and wants to send everything to you in email. There isn’t much you can do here. This why it is important to emphasize the time commitment up front.
- Go around the group several times, until most of the responses are out.
- Ask everyone to look at the compiled list. Ask, “Is there anything that surprises you?”
- Facilitate a discussion to clarify and understand the items.
- Multivote to prioritize the issues. In multivoting, you give each person a number of votes (usually the number of items divided by), which they can assign to the items that they think are most important. The person can put all votes on one item or spread out the votes as they wish.
- Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., and Welch, I. (1992), “A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades,” Journal of Political Economy, Volume 100, Issue 5, pp. 992-1026.
- Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., and Welch, I. (1998), “Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp. 151-170.
- Kerr, L. K. &. Tindale., R. S. (2004). Group Performance and Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 623-655.
- Tan, Hwee Hoon, and Min Li Tan. “Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Social Loafing: The Role of Personality, Motives, and Contextual Factors.” Jan. 2008. ProQuest. New Paltz, New York.