Brainstorming: are you doing it right?

Pixabay/ Creative Commons

When it comes to creative thinking, few tools are as popular as brainstorming. Developed in the early 1950s by an American adman, the technique has been used indiscriminately by teams seeking to produce fresh ideas. The notion behind it is that groups are more creative than individuals alone: as they go for quantity, crowds would increase the chances of coming up with something really good in between. Gathered in teams, participants are also able to build on the ideas of others and consider solutions they wouldn’t otherwise.

There is only one problem with brainstorming: it is not particularly effective. Study after study has shown that people working alone often have more – and in many cases better – ideas. The issue with brainstorming is that it triggers all kinds of unwelcome group dynamics. For example: extrovert people tend to dominate sessions, forbidding valuable ideas to reach the white board. Moreover, team members seem to converge their performance to a mean, as the most talented adjust downwards to match others. As if these weren’t enough, there is also an “accommodation effect”, the general tendency for people to work less in groups, waiting for others to take charge.

But if the evidence against brainstorming is so compelling, why does it still prevail in meeting rooms? Our experience after leading and observing several workshops is that brainstorming is still an unbeatable mechanism to efficiently combine different areas of expertise around one problem. It is also a powerful bonding experience. Nothing seems to energize teams as much as being creative together.

The secret lies in designing a session that allows individual expression and a productive group interaction. Here are a few suggestions on how to do it. All techniques presented bellow work better in teams with up to six people – more than that and the process becomes messy.

Moderate and time it.

This is a method drawn from design thinking, a mindset used to develop innovative solutions through group work. In design thinking workshops, brainstorming sessions are strictly timed and always moderated by a coach.

First, participants have from three to seven minutes to come up with ideas individually and in silence. They use sticky notes to document thoughts as they come. Teams rarely need extra time to capture their most spontaneous ideas – on the contrary, give people too much time and you will notice them getting bored.    

Once time is up, participants are asked to, one after the other, present their ideas to the team and stick their notes to a white board. These presentations are also timed (we suggest three to five minutes) and they should not be in interrupted. Instead, we highly recommend team members to capture in sticky notes the ideas that might come up during a colleague’s presentation.

When all ideas are finally on the board, it’s time to allow some discussion. Participants are asked to build on the ideas of others and further expand or even combine what is already there. If the coach notices that the opinions of a minority of extroverts are dominating, she/he can suggest new rounds of individual brainstorming for different aspects of the problem in question.

Write it down.

An alternative to traditional brainstorming is called “6-3-5 brainwriting”. In this technique, six participants are positioned in a circle. The process starts when each of them receives a sheet of paper with the problem statement written on top. Individuals have five minutes to come up with three ideas for the challenge in question. The process works better if they list ideas side by side in a single line of the sheet (please see the example below). Once time is up, participants are asked to hand their sheet to the person on her/his right, which will then revise the ideas already written down and come up with new ones. After five rounds, the process is over.


Sketch it.

An effective method from design sprints, developed by Google Ventures, involves digging deeper into ideas first and presenting them to the team later. Each participant is given a sheet of paper to draw her/his idea in detail. This should be a step by step process or a storyboard, in which specific features of the idea are highlighted. Only then are all sketches revealed to other team members, who will use sticky dots to vote on the most promising ones. This technique can be specially effective in teams with tight hierarchies if you keep the sources of sketches anonymous. This way participants would be voting on the best idea – and not on the CEO behind it.

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