Crowds are susceptible to groupthink.

Crowds are susceptible to groupthink.

Brainstorming has been a staple in the business world since its creation in the mid-1940s.  Other forces have combined to reinforce the technique such as the mania over crowd sourcing and consensus management styles.  The problem is that the data shows that the technique is not as effective as we all believe, and in some cases can actually be unproductive – such as when groupthink occurs.  There are better ways to generate innovative ideas.

Brainstorming is a process that through free association generates ideas to find a solution or conclusion for a specific problem.  There are a core set of tenants that define brainstorming.  It is generally a group activity that includes a focus on generating as many ideas as possible (quantity), which includes welcoming unusual ideas, combining and improving ideas and the avoidance of criticism.  Great stuff!   However, research[1] has recently questioned whether the process is as effective and efficient as the popularity of the method would suggest.  The research suggests that the reliance on groups and a lack of debate and criticism causes the technique to be less effective at generating creative ideas than other techniques.

Why do you and I care about this topic?  Developing new ideas and innovative solutions is an integral part of software development, enhancement and maintenance.  Using the most effective techniques, or at least knowing what the most effective techniques, is of more just of academic interest.

Groupthink happens when the desire for harmony in a group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.  The after effects of a groupthink gone wrong might include the passive aggressive comment: “I knew this wouldn’t work but did not say anything.”  “Idea gravity wells” and the forbearance of criticism help to create the problem.

Brainstorming and other group techniques for generating ideas leverage the diversity of thought a well-defined group[2] can create. Groups that allow a single powerful individual to dominate can create an idea gravity well that curtails innovation or green-field thinking as new ideas can’t escape the status quo. The problem is that conclusions that have been influenced by groupthink may not hold up in the bright light of the marketplace.

The second criticism is the lack of immediate feedback.  Forbearing debating and criticizing ideas, like a critique in art school, avoids exploring the depths of an idea and deciding quickly what is relevant.  Critiquing ideas makes sure the good parts are honed and built upon and the bad stuff either refined or sloughed off.   Debate, discussion and criticism create a platform to provide immediate feedback, allowing a group to reshape the idea being examined rather than building on a poor base.

I have been experimenting with and honing a process that attacks two of the major criticisms of brainstorming.  The process begins by making sure you have the right team (see the well-formed team footnote).  I strongly suggest using video if you have remote participants.  Make sure you have someone that will act as the scribe and someone that will also act as the moderator for the session.  Second, provide the “team” with the topic being explored and all background information before the planned session.   Each team member is responsible for reviewing the data and developing a list of their best ideas . . . individually.  Generating the initial set of ideas helps to avoid the possibility of groupthink or idea gravity well occurring directly out of the box.  Note: The list of ideas from each person is the price of admission; lack of preparation should bar a potential participant from the session.

The ideation session begins with a round-robin presentation of ideas from each participant with discussion, debate, criticism and refinement (no fisticuffs or off-topic criticisms).  The round-robin presentation generally continues until everyone has put at least one idea on the table or until the initial set of ideas are used up.  I allow and encourage participants to switch to more of free-for-all for laying out and discussing ideas as soon as everyone has completed laying out at least one idea.  Get one idea on the table from each person makes sure all of the participants understand that they have permission to participate.

I allow the process to continue until team members’ lose the will to live, run out of ideas or reach a consensus on an idea or idea set.  I believe that the facilitator or moderator should push a team at least slightly past what is comfortable in order to generate potentially extraordinary results.  Pushing past what is comfortable is one of the reasons I ask interviewees on my podcast for two ideas to solve the problem presented at the end of the interview rather than just one, which would be far more comfortable (note off the record: many interviewees have indicated that one response to the “two things” question would be far easier).

My wife suggests that after the session is complete, give everyone twenty four hours to chew on the topic and then reconvene to make sure that reflection has not provided tweaks to make the solution or solution set better.  Remember that not everyone thinks at the same rate as everyone else.

Why do we think brainstorming works?  We all have experience with the process.  It is comfortable, it is safe and in many cases it generates good ideas . . . just not the best ideas possible.  To brainstorm or not to brainstorm, that is the question, perhaps not exactly Shakespeare, but relevant nevertheless.  As we gain a better understanding of what works and why, when it comes to generating innovative ideas isn’t it time to put aside preconceived notions based on hearsay?  The data from academia suggests that what we know is based on just that — hearsay.  Don’t let data get in the way, you might say; we believe what we believe.  This week I announced to a group that brainstorming was not as effective as other techniques in terms of generating innovative ideas.  You would have thought that I had insulted their children.  Everyone has a story about successes using brainstorming.  Those successes may well have helped us get out of tight situations, but because of those successes it is hard to acknowledge that there are better ways to generate solutions and new ideas.  This is true whether we are discussing idea generation, software development or Marigolds and Moonflowers (something absolutely unrelated). Brainstorming may still have a place at the innovation table, but it should no longer sit at the head of the table.  There are better ways to generate creative solutions and now is not the time to leave creative ideas on the table . . . maybe it is never time to leave creative ideas on the table!


[2] Well-formed means that only the minimum number of people should participate and that those that participate include a range of experience and backgrounds.

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