By - December 20, 2021
The notion of brainstorming to conjure up new ideas and approaches to deal with issues or problems is not a new one. In 1953, Alex Osborn outlined procedures for creative problem solving and referred to brainstorming as one tool for creative collaboration in groups.1 Much of the work that has been done in this area is not evidence-based and there are relatively few studies that have attempted to apply evidence-based approaches to real world contexts.2 The most common approach to brainstorming is to gather a group of people together for a face-to-face meeting to share ideas verbally. There are, however, issues with this approach.
Some studies have suggested that verbal brainstorming in groups may not be as effective for generating ideas as one would think.3 Production blocking (people have to take turns sharing ideas i.e., shared talking time) is one example of a potential hindrance to effectiveness. With production blocking, only one person at a time can speak. While waiting your turn, it is easy to sometimes forget what it is you wanted to say or get distracted by what someone else says. Participation can be uneven in a group with this dynamic, with some contributing more than others.
One strategy to overcome this is to employ multiple modalities. People can submit ideas electronically beforehand that can be collected and then distributed for discussion. Or, people could write down their ideas and put them on a board so everyone could see them. Combining individual brainstorming strategies with group brainstorming seems to be more effective than only using verbal brainstorming tactics.
Other problems that have been posited in the group brainstorming situation have to do with how the group is formulated, how the session is run and how people interact with each other. JG Rawlinson suggested that barriers to creative thinking can be overcome in brainstorming sessions by identifying the barriers up front; by doing so, one is actually able to better remove them as barriers.4 Below are four common barriers to group brainstorming activities.
1) Lack of defined goals or purpose
A clear overview of the project and goals is a sound way to start a brainstorming session, even if you think everyone knows what the project is or what the issues are. Knowing what you hope to gain from the brainstorming activity is important. Otherwise, it can be very easy for the group to wander and lose its way. The objective is to generate as many creative ideas as possible that are pertinent to the goals set forth at the start. To facilitate this, make the aims specific; vague or overarching goals make it hard to keep the group on task. Focus on the achievable, relevant, doable, and the measureable.
2) No limits/parameters set up front
A shorter time frame often works better than longer sessions. Set and announce the time limit at the start; this will encourage the group to stay on track and to work hard with the time allotted.
The amount of time needed is dependent on the scope of the session. Larger projects may do better if broken into smaller projects or distributed among several groups to divide the work load, to maximize the number of ideas that can be generated and to avoid group burnout. The format of the session should also be clearly delineated at the start, so all members will know how the session will run and what to expect. Any reading materials needed for preparation should be distributed ahead of time. Consideration should be given to the space where the session will be held; sometimes meeting in a different space from the regular work space (e.g., different building, outside, coffee shop, etc.) can increase creativity. Likewise, consideration should be given to how the seating in the room is arranged to best facilitate discussion. The meeting should start with a description of what the ideal outcome of the session would look like. The rules of engagement should be clearly delineated up front (e.g., cell phones turned off, no computers, etc.).
3) No thought given to the components of the team
The composition of the group or team is important to consider. The leader should be someone who can facilitate the process effectively and is clear on the aims of the session. Someone who is too controlling can shut down open discussion. As for the group members, diversity of opinion is desirable. Invite people with different skill sets and experiences. Consider inviting someone who may be totally outside the scope of the project for an outsider perspective.
4) Lack of true open-mindedness/being too judgmental
The ideal dynamic is one that allows group members to share a breadth and depth of ideas. To that end, members should avoid being too judgmental. Creating an environment that makes people comfortable enough to share ideas without concern about being ridiculed or dismissed is important. Open-mindedness is critical. No idea should be thought of as too trivial or unimportant to be voiced. An ideal brainstorming environment maximizes the number of ideas that are voiced. Do not dismiss ideas that at first glance appear to be unrealistic or outlandish; these sometimes can lead to true innovation. Political agendas and power differentials should be set aside. Individuals who are too dominant need to stand back and give the quieter members an opportunity to express their ideas. All members should be equally valued for what they have to offer and respected for what they bring to the table. One also needs to be cognizant of the potential for the group think phenomenon to develop. Groups falling prey to the group think mindset avoid confrontation, and to expedite the process, avoid promoting ideas that are unique or seemingly impractical. Positive reinforcement at the expense of critical thinking and creativity stifles the process.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of the session lies in how the information gained is processed and utilized. Looking for themes and relationships among the ideas shared may provide direction toward an eventual action plan. Keeping an open mind in analyzing the ideas is important. Give consideration to all ideas; do not quickly dismiss those that seem ill-conceived or those with which you disagree. Sometimes, someone else may have a better idea than you! In the end, a plan of action with follow-though validates the efforts of the group. And remember, according to physician and psychologist Edward de Bono, “It is better to have had enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.”