When tapping your company’s brain trust to come up with new ways to tackle problems or innovate new products or services, what’s the best way to move forward? If you’re thinking about brainstorming, you’ve got a lot of company. However, I believe that while the concept of brainstorming is a good one, the traditional process should be reworked. How many of you have been in brainstorming sessions when brains were actually storming… my guess is very few.
The Traditional Approach is Broken
Brainstorming sessions traditionally gather a handful of an organization’s best thinkers in the same room, give them an objective and see what shakes out of the conversation. There are two problems with this approach. One is borne out of dominant personalities. If you have a room of ten employees, for example, there will always be one or two who jump into the fray with their ideas and expand on them, giving others little or no time to float ideas of their own. Some people just like to spout off and grab ownership of the conversation.
You’ve seen the type—they like to hear themselves talk, and will make a whole presentation out of their one idea, effectively hijacking the session. Others may have something more brilliant to contribute, but might be reticent and easily put off by conversation hogs. Plus, when one person is doing most of the talking in a group, everyone else is concentrating on what they’re saying (or tuning them out) and are not coming up with ideas of their own.
The second problem is that our minds are biased by first impressions. The first statements made in a group conversation tend to color the decisions and evaluations of the rest of the group—a process psychologists call anchoring. So let’s say your conversation hog blurts out the first thing that comes to mind to look smart at the beginning of the session. Even if he doesn’t dominate the rest of the conversation, the rest of the group will tend to waste time thinking about that first idea, whether it’s a good one or not—and it will color the rest of the discussion. Even without a conversation hog in the group, the first ideas tend to be low-hanging fruit to get things started—not a good anchoring point for developing bigger and better ideas.
Give Everyone’s Ideas More Play
A good way around these issues is to change the rules of the game. You can avoid the problems of anchoring and conversation hogs by giving everyone at the table a chance to think in their own space and write down their ideas before opening group discussion, something called “brainwriting.” It’s not a new concept. In May of 2000, University of Texas Psychology Professor Paul B. Paulus wrote in the Academic Pressabout brainstorming in a paper entitled Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations, and a recent Fast Company article, Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead, also discusses it.
The Fast Company article explains that brainwriting is a more systematic way of getting everyone’s ideas down on paper (or a whiteboard). Doing this before or at the very beginning of a meeting and putting all ideas on the table for discussion eliminates the problems with social dynamics and gives the group more to work with. It can be as simple as having everyone jot down their ideas on 3×5 cards, or more advanced by using apps like Candor to record participants’ thoughts before the meeting and screen out repetitive ideas.
Numbers from the Fast Company article indicate that brainwriting can generate 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas than traditional brainstorming groups. When it comes to innovating, you need as many ideas in the till as possible, and the ability and freedom to work together as a group to create something new.
Quantity and Variety = Better Outcomes
It’s the conversation side of brainstorming that produces the fruit. Once people start chewing on these ideas and putting their brains together to create and collaborate—that’s where the magic happens. So if you’re frustrated by the results of your brainstorming sessions, consider changing the process. Brainwriting can help eliminate problems that reduce idea flow, such as anchoring and pontificating. It also gives brainstormers a bigger variety of ideas to work with and more time to converse with each other to play with those ideas and turn them into something great.