Group Brainstorming and the Quality of the Best Idea

I am a something of a cynic when it comes to group brainstorming, unless accompanied by excellent moderation and facilitation and an initial phase of ‘solo thinking’. Group dynamics concern me, and there is significant evidence (from personal experience) and the innovation literature to substantiate the view that group dynamics skew (or at the very least have significant potential to skew) the brainstorming process.

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Dominant characters, internal politics,  naysayers and biases act to subvert the group’s collective potential. Excellent facilitation and moderation is needed to tackle these problematic behaviours and the barriers they create. In a world of extroverts, how (for example) do you best engage the introvert? There is truth in the observation that great technological invention has come from many introverts. In group sessions the extroverts tend to drown out (potentially higher value) ideas from the introverts. Conversational detours or a tendency to fixate on single ideas are also common often leading to premature solutioning.

Effective moderation in the corporate world is not always (I would say commonly) present. Companies with significant experience in innovation will have recognised the weaknesses in group brainstorming and put in place the necessary measures for its avoidance. Group brainstorming also tends to happen in the office, over a fixed duration and surrounded by other pressures and distractions (email, phone calls etc.).

A multi-stage approach is more productive. I prefer ‘solo innovation’ as a precursor to group brainstorming. This allows participants to immerse themselves in the problem space, direct and filter their own thinking and research and to challenge themselves to generate a spread of ideas and rank them across various dimensions (such as impact, timescale, cost, risk, ability to execute etc.). Recording the thought processes and key decisions (what was rejected and why, what was retained and why) is also highly useful when ‘presenting ideas as an ‘input set’ to group brainstorming . I like mind maps as a ‘thinking medium’ as well as an approach for articulating decisions. I am not averse to mentoring in this phase, as long as the mentor understands that any advice should be carefully balanced to ensure they do not unduly influence the outcome. A ‘solo innovation’ phase also frees up the creative thinking process. Creativity cannot be forced and it is important to recognise that maximisation of creativity within a group requires accommodation of different thinking processes.

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Higher quality ideas are generated when ‘solo innovation’ is applied before group brainstorming. Group brainstorming is a useful second step. Multiple juxtapositions and ‘builds’ on ideas can help shape them, combine their best (and unique) features, enhance strengths and remove weaknesses. A cautionary note is ‘idea ownership’. Some participants in group brainstorming may resist accepting (what they perceive as) the personal ideas of others. Moving to ‘group ownership of the idea’ can be challenging. A potential disadvantage of the hybrid approach is that ideas might be perpetually perceived to be owned by their originator.

The benefits of a hybrid (multi-phased) approach is substantiated by research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. In their paper “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea”, researchers determined that:

groups employing the hybrid process are able to generate more ideas, to generate better ideas, and to better discern their best ideas compared to teams that rely purely on group work. Moreover, we find that the frequently recommended brainstorming technique of building on each other’s ideas is counter-productive: teams exhibiting such build-up neither create more ideas nor are the ideas that build on previous ideas better.

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Further Reading on Group Brainstorming

Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea:

University of Pennsylvania – Operations & Information Management Department December 8, 2009 INSEAD Business School Research Paper No. 2009/65/TOM.

Abstract:
In a wide variety of organizational settings, teams generate a number of possible solutions to a problem, and then select a few for further investigation. We examine the effectiveness of two creative problem solving processes for such tasks – one, where the group works together as a team (the team process), and the other where individuals first work alone and then work together (the hybrid process). We define effectiveness as the quality of the best ideas identified by the group. We build theory that relates previously observed group behaviour to four different variables that characterize the creative problem solving process: (1) the average quality of ideas generated, (2) the number of ideas generated, (3) the variance in the quality of ideas generated, and (4) the ability of the group to discern the quality of the ideas. Prior research defines effectiveness as the quality of the average idea, ignoring any differences in variance and in the ability to discern the best ideas. In our experimental set-up, we find that groups employing the hybrid process are able to generate more ideas, to generate better ideas, and to better discern their best ideas compared to teams that rely purely on group work. Moreover, we find that the frequently recommended brainstorming technique of building on each other’s ideas is counter-productive: teams exhibiting such build-up neither create more ideas nor are the ideas that build on previous ideas better.