Is there a better way to brainstorm?

Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

If you are dreading your team's next brainstorming session, it is time to change your approach.

At a glance

  • Traditional brainstorming can fail if it is approached as a box-ticking exercise targeted at more dominant and confident personalities.
  • Creative thinking experts suggest brainstorming strategies that combine elements of individual and group dynamics.
  • Brainstorming is most effective when it aims to solve a problem and when there is clarity about the purpose of the session.

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“Traditional brainstorming fails because people assume it’s just a ‘sky writing’ exercise, where you get a bunch of people in a room, state the problem and allow them to throw ideas into the air while someone writes them on a whiteboard,” says creative thinking expert Yvonne Adele.

“Even worse, the person with the whiteboard marker starts pointing at people one at a time, going around the room asking for the next idea.”

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The prospect of a brainstorming session is often met with dread or viewed cynically as a box-ticking exercise with little value.

Adele says more reticent people tend to self-censor as they hear others’ contributions. “What you end up with is the dominant and confident personalities saying everything, and the more quiet people never being heard.”

Yet, it is precisely those quiet people who may hold the key to better brainstorming.

Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking argues that people are more creative, more effective and more likely to succeed when they are on their own as opposed to in a group.

Psychologist Dr Keith Sawyer, in his seminal book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, agrees: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Their position is not that brainstorming is intrinsically wrong, but that it is our approach to brainstorming that is the problem.

Start with one

Adele’s alternative to traditional brainstorming is a strategy called Think-Pair-Share, which combines elements of individual and group dynamics.

“It brings structure to brainstorming and is a more organic way of utilising each person’s endless supply of fresh ideas,” she says.

Getting people into the right frame of mind to kick-start lateral thinking is an important first step, using fun and experimental brain games to start pushing the boundaries and demonstrate that no idea is a bad idea.

Initially, each person works alone to solve the problem at hand, using techniques such as building a list of random words that spark ideas.

Then, they partner with one person to share those ideas, add to them and whittle them down to a shortlist of the very best. The process gradually brings in more of the team members, sharing and refining, until there is a consensus on which ideas have the most potential.

When the ideas are put on an evaluation matrix, where X and Y represent two objectives important to the business, such as High Impact/Low Impact and High Cost/Low Cost, the ideas in the High Impact, Low Cost quadrant come out on top, explains Adele.

Who is in the room?

Brainstorming is most effective when it is focused on solving a single problem, and leaders should be very clear about the purpose and desired outcome of a brainstorming session before it starts.

The people in the room – their experience and perspective – are equally important.

Diversity of experience and background leads to better outcomes in brainstorming, says Felicity Furey, director, industry partnerships, with Swinburne University of Technology.

“It’s good to draw on different people’s expertise. A more homogenous team makes brainstorming easier and more comfortable, and you tend to reach conclusions more quickly. But with a diverse team – people who bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds to the table – you will come up with better outcomes, even if the conversations that get you there are more difficult,” says Furey.

Culturally diverse groups also pose a particular set of challenges. David Livermore, American cultural intelligence researcher, says that brainstorming is better suited to some personalities and cultures than to others.

Livermore has previously stated that those of us who have grown up in education environments where active classroom participation is required usually thrive in traditional brainstorming sessions.

On the other hand, those of us from school environments where deep thinking is encouraged before expressing one’s opinion may actively avoid putting forward ideas that may be considered radical.

To encourage wide participation, Livermore suggests offering a variety of ways to share ideas, such as writing out a list or discussing ideas with colleagues before bringing them to the wider group.

CPA Library resource: Unlocking creativity: how to solve any problem, make the best decisions, and build a successful business by shifting creative mindsets. Read now.

Challenging the status quo

Ultimately, people will respond well to brainstorming if they feel psychologically safe and if discussion is open and non-judgemental.

“Leaders have to examine where their culture sits and whether their people are too inhibited to say what they actually think or challenge the status quo – particularly if the boss or more senior colleagues are present,” says Furey.

Sometimes, Furey will bring in an outside facilitator. “The advantage is that they can ask probing questions or broach an issue that we are not discussing as a team – but need to.”

At the end of the day, it is important to have a plan to turn brainstormed ideas into actions.

Giving individuals the responsibility for progressing an idea and evaluating its real-world viability ensures collaboration continues.

A schedule of follow-up meetings allows the group to decide on best solutions to problems that may arise along the way.

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