Thursday’s post, Stop Brainstorming and Generate Better Ideas, got quite the reaction, particularly on Twitter.
I’m not surprised. I also reacted strongly when I first learned about the research against brainstorming.
Rather than moving on to idea evaluation, I want to first respond to the most common objections.
What Does “Better Outcomes” Mean?
I made a number of claims tied to creative outcomes. For example, I said individuals generate more, diverse, unique ideas than the same number of individuals participating in brainstorming groups. Let’s take a look at what this means.
Creativity is measured along three dimensions.
- Fluency: the number of ideas generated
- Flexibility: the diversity of the types of ideas
- Originality: the uniqueness of an idea.
For example, if you were generating a list of animals, you might get the following scores:
dog, cat, mouse, horse, elephant
- Fluency: 5 ideas
- Flexibility: 5 different types of ideas
- Originality: 0-1 depending on how novel you think elephant is.
cat, lion, tiger, puma, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, cougar
- Fluency: 8 ideas
- Flexibility: 1 (they are all cats)
- Originality: 3-5 (depending on how novel you think the latter 5 are)
Most of the research that calls brainstorming into question is comparing the creative output of groups of individuals working alone against the same number of individuals brainstorming.
At least one or two of the studies only compared fluency, which I originally thought was a weak comparison. However, fluency is a precursor to both flexibility and originality, meaning the more ideas you generate the more diverse and unique they tend to be.
Trained Facilitators Do Help
Many people argued that the most common problems with brainstorming can be counteracted with good facilitation. This is true. Trained facilitators do help. But they help groups get to the same level of individuals working alone. They don’t help groups outperform individuals.
Most companies don’t have access to trained facilitators. It’s hard to justify this expense if you can get the same output by working individually.
Writing Ideas Down On Stickies Also Helps
Some people asked, “does writing ideas down on stickies help?”
Yes, writing ideas down on stickies is better than having people verbally shout ideas popcorn-style. It helps introverts who might not be comfortable jumping in to share their ideas.
It also can help reduce production blocking. But it depends on how it is managed. Often times, groups will use stickies to capture ideas while still shouting out ideas.
This can help as you can capture your ideas while waiting for your turn, but it doesn’t really solve the problem entirely. The idea that you are about to write down can still get lost when you hear someone else share their idea.
Brainstorming Is Only One Form of Group Ideation
While brainstorming has come under criticism by the research, there are other forms of group ideation that may still be effective.
Brainwriting: Instead of participants shouting ideas out as they occur to them, the group takes time to write down each of their own ideas in silence. After a period of silent writing, the group then takes turns sharing their ideas in a round-robin fashion.
Brainwriting prevents production blocking and reduces the chances of group conformity. Groups that use brainwriting techniques generate more, diverse ideas than brainstorming groups.
Nominal Group Technique: This technique extends brainwriting to include a session where the group discusses each of the proposed ideas. This is followed by a vote, where each participant rank-orders each idea. This technique overwhelmingly outperforms traditional brainstorming.
Many of the people who reacted negatively to my last post were proponents of one of these more effective techniques. I want to be clear, I’m not opposed to group ideation. In fact, my recommendations listed at the end of that post (and repeated below) outlined ways to make group ideation more effective.
The Research Isn’t Flawless
I will be the first to admit that the research isn’t flawless. Most of the studies used teams that weren’t trained in brainstorming, they don’t have facilitators, and they don’t have a lot of experience working together. Most used students as participants.
Having said that, this is not too different from how most companies brainstorm. Companies often pull cross-functional teams together who may not be familiar with each other. Few companies have trained facilitators and even fewer do team training in brainstorming.
Why Do You Need Brainstorming To Work?
When I first learned about the brainstorming research, i reacted strongly. I relied on brainstorming a lot and I was adamant it worked. IDEO uses it. The Stanford d.school uses it. Could they really be wrong?
I even wrote this post trying to sort it all out.
Ultimately, I had to ask myself, why do I need brainstorming to work? And I encourage you to ask yourself the same question.
Let’s be clear, what has been shown to not be effective is Osborn’s rules of brainstorming. There are plenty of forms of group ideation that may still be effective.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that language isn’t precise and we often are unaware of what we are actually doing. I am sure that the “brainstorming” activities that IDEO and the d.school participate in are useful for them. I also know that both organizations have extended and modified Osborn’s rules. Pixar has modified them significantly. This is not what I am calling into question as there is little research here.
If you do use one of these newer methods, why not run your own experiment? Try brainwriting or the nominal group technique. Compare the output of these methods to your own methods.
Many companies, however, don’t follow these newer methods. They follow Osborn’s rules – or worse – no rules at all. This, we know, doesn’t work.
As a result, I stand by my original recommendations.
1. Ideas can happen anywhere at anytime. Your ideation strategy should allow people to capture ideas as they occur.
2. Ideas spur more ideas. All ideas should be visible to everyone on the team. It should be easy for others to extend, comment, or vote for other people’s ideas.
3. Diverse ideas lead to better ideas. The more people you include the better outcomes you’ll get. Include everyone in your ideation process.
4. We know that solutions from one domain applied to another domain often lead to creative solutions. Make it easy for groups to pull ideas from other parts of the organization.
Want to Read More?
Improving the Creativity of Organizational Work Groups
Leigh Thompson and Leo F. Brajkovich
The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 96- 111
This paper does a good job of summarizing the research. If you are interested in reading the original studies, check the references list.
On Thursday, we’ll tackle idea evaluation. Don’t miss out. Subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list.