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Why Brainstorm Sessions Don’t Work And How To Fix It

Why Brainstorm Sessions Don’t Work And How To Fix It

Most teams at Pixar, Ideo and McKinsey make a living out of effective brainstorming sessions

The truth remains that the popularity of brainstorming is only matched by its ineffectiveness

Idea blocking happens when you find it difficult to think of an idea while being compelled to listen to somebody’s ideas

One of the most widely adopted techniques of ideation is brainstorming, and you must have been through one yourself in not distant past. It is a structured way of breaking away from the structure. Here, a bunch of people come together to attack a problem and (hopefully) bring to table divergent views.

The modern concept of brainstorming could be attributed to the work of Alex Osborn who pioneered the concept in 1930s. Since then, almost all organizations have come up with their own approaches to idea generation using brainstorming and have experienced different levels of success. On the power of brainstorming in setting an innovation culture, Tom Kelly from Ideo notes, “Regular brainstorming is as critical to an organization as regular exercise is to your health. It creates a responsive, innovative culture.”

Most teams at Pixar, Ideo and McKinsey make a living out of effective brainstorming sessions. Ideo has even gone to the extent of putting down some ground rules for effective brainstorming: build on the ideas of others; stay focused on the topic; defer judgement; encourage wild ideas; one conversation at a time; be visual; and go for quantity (and not quality).

However, the truth remains that the popularity of brainstorming is only matched by its ineffectiveness. Most brainstorming sessions are far from effective in coming up with non-obvious ideas, let alone encourage widescale participation. Research suggests that group brainstorming sessions are not as effective as they are perceived to be and, in numerous cases, individuals have outperformed groups on both the quantity and quality of ideas. Why so?

The four most prominent explanations of why group brainstorming session are often wasteful are: idea blocking, evaluation apprehension, groupthink, and freeriding behaviour.

Idea blocking happens when you find it difficult to think of an idea while being compelled to listen to somebody’s ideas. Since effective brainstorming almost pushes you into building on others’ ideas, you tend to block your original ideas in the process. This problem gets further exacerbated with the fear of being evaluated by others and it means, you kill those wild ideas right in your head.

A high power-distance, collectivism, and a consensus-driven culture, which is typical of an Indian context, only worsens the evaluation apprehension.  The dual assault of idea blocking and evaluation apprehension quickly results into groupthink, where the entire group, however diverse its composition might be, starts to think like one mind, and the discussion soon withers down to the lowest common denominator (read, the most mediocre, commonsensical ideas).

When groupthink starts to kick in, individuals have no incentive to speak up, they prefer to go with the flow, and this raises freeriding tendencies among participants. A team of seven is no better than five or three, if the brainstorming session is not managed well. So, what’s the resort?

Over the years, I have been practising an approach of ideation which is a blend of solo thinking and thinking in teams, a combination of writing or drawing and speaking, and this has turned out to be better not only in terms of idea productivity but also on accounts of team camaraderie. Participants are first allowed to think individually on specific problem areas, write down or sketch out their solutions (preferably anonymously), and then they open up for further discussion and building up.

Now that all participants have made their point, there is a lower tendency of idea blocking or evaluation apprehension, and since all have written down their ideas individually, the tendencies of groupthink and freeriding also get minimized. The blend of solo and group ideation is what I call ‘hybrid brainstorming’. It further helps to put a number target in terms of how many ideas an individual must generate before opening up the discussion, as it brings discipline and lowers the free ridership. It seems there is some validation of this approach in more serious settings as well.

As Jake Knapp of Google Ventures distils from his years of running design thinking sprints for Chrome, Google Search, Gmail and other projects, he observes, “The ideas that went on to launch and become successful were not generated in a shout-out-loud brainstorm.”

Advocating an approach where individuals work on their ideas and sketching those before soliciting feedback from colleagues, Jake adds, “When each person sketches alone, he or she will have time for deep thought. When the whole team works in parallel, they’ll generate competing ideas, without the groupthink of a group brainstorming. You might call this method ‘work alone together’.”

Interestingly, even with documented and anecdotally known limitations of brainstorming sessions, organizations don’t seem to wither away from adopting the approach. Why? Are organizations blind to research and their own less-than-desirable experiences of organizing brainstorming exercises, or does brainstorming serves other purposes than merely generating ideas?

Robert Sutton and Andrew Hargadon seem to have an explanation of this apparently counterintuitive practice. They suggest that brainstorming sessions, especially in the context of a product design company, serve the following objectives: supporting the organizational memory for designing solutions; providing skill variety for designers;  supporting an attitude of wisdom (acting with knowledge while doubting that one knows); and creating a status auction (a competition for status based on technical skills).

Realizing why brainstorming persists, do you think that the practice be improved with some mindfulness? Absolutely yes, and a hybrid-brainstorming approach could just be that.  So, next time you onboard a brainstorming session, take a pause, let everyone write down his or her ideas, and then throw open the discussion, in a time-bound manner.

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