Better Brainstorming

Better Brainstorming

The pitfalls of group brainstorming and how to overcome them

The pitfalls of group brainstorming and how to overcome them

The pitfalls of group brainstorming and how to overcome them

JUNE 4, 2023

Have you ever been disappointed by group brainstorming sessions that didn’t live up to their full creative potential? Despite the power and benefits of collective intelligence, it’s common for these sessions to produce fewer ideas than individual brainstorming. Fortunately, there are ways to improve this process. This post will explore the reasons behind this paradox and offer practical strategies for brainstorming. Whether you prefer working collaboratively or independently, this guide will provide valuable insights to strengthen your idea-generation process.

The importance of idea generation

Coming up with good ideas is an integral part of our work. We progress and develop innovative solutions by creating, sharing, and improving ideas. The key to our ability to come up with fresh and creative ideas lies in the method we employ to generate them. Generally, we approach idea generation in two ways: as a group or individually; specific techniques we use may vary.

The paradox

However, researchers have found, paradoxically, that group brainstorming often results in fewer ideas than individual brainstorming, even though groups contain more people and, thus, more potential ideas. Why is this? This paradox is caused by common challenges many of us can understand: poor facilitation, difficulty sharing ideas freely, reduced individual effort in group settings, and the fear of being judged or criticized by others. Let’s have a closer look.

Factors affecting group brainstorming

Production Blocking

During group brainstorming sessions, production blocking occurs when only one person at a time can speak, preventing others from sharing their ideas. This can result in delays or interruptions in idea sharing, limiting the flow of creative thinking and the quantity and quality of ideas produced.

Social Loafing

Social loafing happens when group members contribute less actively or put in less effort than when they work alone. During brainstorming, some individuals may depend on others to develop ideas, believing their input is less crucial. This decrease in personal effort can adversely affect the group’s overall productivity and result in fewer generated ideas.

Evaluation Apprehension

Evaluation apprehension is the fear of being negatively evaluated or judged by others in a group setting. This fear can cause individuals to hesitate to share their ideas when brainstorming. They may worry about potential criticism or rejection from others, which can limit their willingness to contribute fully. This may inhibit the quantity and quality of ideas generated in a group.

The role of a skilled facilitator

By employing facilitation techniques like encouraging equal participation, ensuring psychological safety, maintaining focus, and facilitating idea synthesis, a skilled facilitator can help mitigate some of the challenges associated with group brainstorming. An experienced facilitator can also create a positive and supportive atmosphere that fosters creativity, encourages the generation of diverse ideas, and facilitates effective collaboration among group members.

If you are without a facilitator for your brainstorming session, there are ways to get around this. Begin by shifting the focus from the group to individuals. A hybrid, collaborative approach involving individual brainstorming and group discussion can be successful; the key here is to give individuals the time and space to brainstorm on their own first.

My experience running design workshops

As a Lead Designer at Zendesk, I facilitate Design Studio workshops. These workshops unite individuals with diverse roles, such as designers, product managers, developers, and sometimes sales, marketing, and customer support. Our objective is to collaborate and generate ideas to solve a specific problem. While I am a skilled facilitator, the success of these workshops comes from the unique perspectives and ideas contributed by each participant, and the overall model is hybrid. I warm participants up to the problem space before the workshop and allow them time to think independently before the group brainstorms. After the workshops, I elaborate on the work as an individual. Ultimately, the mix of skilled facilitation and individual and group brainstorming sessions are highly effective in generating initial ideas.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

There are some fantastic strategies for improving brainstorming, and these work in hybrid models where a facilitator may or may not be present.

Nominal Group Technique (NGT)

One effective technique for brainstorming is to have each person come up with ideas on their own and then bring everyone together to share and discuss them. This approach helps to prevent interruptions and allows everyone to contribute without being blocked. During the sharing and discussion phase, the group can combine and build upon each other’s ideas, which is one of the benefits of group brainstorming.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

Electronic Brainstorming

With the increase in remote work, electronic brainstorming has become a convenient method for idea generation. It involves using a shared digital platform where multiple individuals can contribute their ideas simultaneously without any hindrance. Apps like Miro and FigJam work well. I run all of my Design Studio workshops remotely using a digital whiteboard; people sketch at home and then take a photo of their sketches and upload them to the digital whiteboard for discussion.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

Brainwriting

Brainwriting is a valuable idea-generation technique similar to the Nominal Group Technique. However, it emphasizes individual idea generation without group discussion. During a brainwriting session, participants generate ideas independently on paper or electronically without any interruptions or external influences. Unlike NGT, brainwriting does not involve a structured group discussion. Instead, participants focus on their thought processes to explore and expand their ideas. Brainwriting can be done alone or collaboratively, where participants pass their written ideas to others for additional inspiration and contribution. This method allows a more thorough exploration of unique ideas while benefiting from the group’s collective wisdom.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

Structured Brainstorming

Structured Brainstorming is a different approach to group idea generation that aims to optimize the brainstorming process by implementing specific guidelines or structures. One common technique is to divide the brainstorming session into particular periods or phases. For example, the initial phase may focus on generating ideas, where participants are encouraged to freely express as many ideas as possible without judgment or interruption. This phase promotes a non-judgmental environment and allows for the free flow of ideas. After the idea generation phase, the session moves into a discussion and evaluation phase. During this stage, participants can explore and analyze the ideas generated, provide feedback, and collectively evaluate their potential. Structured brainstorming offers a framework that balances individual creativity with group collaboration, allowing for the best of both worlds.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

Stepladder Technique

The Stepladder Technique is a valuable way to generate group ideas, slightly distinct from Brainwriting. Individuals start by generating ideas on their own. However, in the Stepladder Technique, the sharing of ideas is introduced gradually. The process begins with two people who share their ideas with each other. Then, a third person joins the group, shares their ideas with the previous members, and hears their ideas in return. This step-by-step addition of participants continues until all individuals are in the group, sharing their ideas and listening to those shared by earlier participants. The Stepladder Technique provides a structured approach to ensure that all ideas are heard, and it builds upon the collective wisdom of the group. It provides a controlled environment for idea sharing, encouraging the input of each participant to be considered and valued.

Strategies for effective brainstorming

Collaborating with a group can be helpful, but it can also be difficult due to issues like inadequate leadership or hesitation to contribute ideas. However, you can overcome these challenges by working with an experienced facilitator and utilizing methods such as the Nominal Group Technique or electronic brainstorming. Remember these tactics when striving to come up with original solutions. Choose the best approach for your team to enhance your collaboration efforts.

These techniques aim to maintain the advantages of brainstorming in a group setting, such as generating diverse ideas and working together to solve problems while minimizing adverse effects like blocking each other’s productivity, not contributing enough, or feeling worried about being judged. It’s crucial to pick the method that fits the group’s dynamics and the issue they’re trying to resolve.

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