illustration showing individual brainstorming is better than in group brainstorming.

I’ve always hated group brainstorming sessions. What seems like a good idea; harnessing the collective brainpower of a group while team building, is usually a colossal waste of time. Working individually to generate ideas is more efficient for me. Turns out, science supports my preference. I feel so validated. This post will examine why group brainstorming fails, and then offer proven techniques for boosting creativity in groups.

Yes, there is actually a scientific way to measure creativity in groups. Leigh Thompson, who directs the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center at Northwestern University has done extensive research on this topic. She uses Guilford’s 3 Factor to measure fluency (quantity of ideas), flexibility (idea shifts), and originality (rarity of ideas).

Ms. Thompson discovered that individuals who brainstorm alone generate 21% more ideas than groups. Those ideas are 42% more original than those that originated from groups.

Why Group Brainstorming Fails
I recently heard a great analogy on the Accidental Creative Podcast. Group brainstorming is like that playground game where an entire class holds a parachute with a red rubber ball in the middle. Any time someone makes a bold movement, the rest of the group compensates to keep the ball in the middle. There seems to be a gravitational pull of the ball back to the center. The ball in the center is equal to safe, expected, unoriginal solutions. But with brainstorming, the edges are where real breakthroughs take place. In group brainstorming, participants avoid looking silly in front of the group. Or, individuals in the group slack off because someone starts to dominate the group. Or, the group focuses on quality, rather than quantity, stunting the flow of ideas. All are creativity killers.

But don’t disband your brainstorming group. All groups can boost their creative output if they work individually first, then come together as a group. I’ll explain this better approach next, and then offer creative catalysts for better group brainstorming.

New and Improved Group Brainstorming
The first step is to define the creative problem. For example, “generate ideas for a holiday promotion.” Then give the problem to individuals with a clear performance expectation. Something like, “bring 50 ideas to the group meeting tomorrow.” Encourage individuals to bring their 50 ideas (1 idea written on a 3 x 5 card) to the group meeting tomorrow. This step could also happen at the beginning of a meeting with everyone in the same room. But the key is that participants must work individually and write down ideas on the 3×5 cards, not delivery them verbally.

Then, the facilitator collects and posts all the cards on the wall. Individuals are discouraged from guessing or confessing ownership of ideas. Each individual is given 5 post-it notes, and votes for the best ideas by silently placing a post-it directly on the 3×5 card. After voting, the facilitator leads an open group discussion about the ideas that received the most votes. The facilitator then chooses the top five ideas. The facilitator divides the overall group into five smaller groups (2″“4 people) and gives each small group one of the top five ideas. The small groups then work together to make that idea better.

6 Creative Catalysts For Group Brainstorming

1. Work in Small Groups
Thompson’s research shows the smaller the group, the higher the creative output. Nobody can hide in a small group. Members take individual responsibility for generating ideas. Plus, members of smaller groups feel like their individual contribution has higher value.

2. Go For Quantity, Not Quality
In beginning brainstorming phases, generate as many ideas as possible. The more ideas, the more likely you’ll have a great idea. To keep ideas flowing, and avoid judgement, which kills a safe environment. The editing or critique phase must happen later.

3. Set a Timer
A little pressure helps the brain rise to the occasion. Set a timer for 10 minute brainstorming sessions. Thompson’s research shows that 70% of ideas come in the first ten minutes. After a break, examine the problem in a new way with subsequent sessions until you reach your idea quota.

4. Mix It Up
By mixing things up, we access new creative possibilities. This may mean changing locations, catalysts, or people. Thompson’s research shows that by adding a new member to the group, legacy members become more creative: 22% increase in quantity, 31% increase in originality. Teams made up of diverse individuals generate new perspectives. Agitation, as long as participants feel safe to fail, creates friction to heat up creative output.

5. Try Speedstorming
Think of this as speed dating meets brainstorming. You work with another individual on a creative problem for 3″“5 minutes, then once the timer sounds, that person gets up and moves to the right. You get a new creative “date” and begin anew.

6. Hire a Professional Facilitator
Invest in a trained facilitator to keep your group on track and to harness the brain power of all those in the group. The facilitator will take notes or record ideas to allow all members of the group to contribute ideas. Ideation needs to be democratic as great ideas can come from anyone. An objective outside facilitator is immune to bullying or office politics.

I thought that my aversion to group brainstorming was because I am an introvert preferring to work alone, rather than in a group. It’s validating to know that science supports ideating individually first. With a third of us identifying as introvert on the spectrum, it’s good to know that there is a way for us to contribute to groups. I’m biased, but I think introverts are more creative than extroverts. Unfortunately, in traditional group brainstorming, introverts often get silenced by the loudest extroverts in the group. This method described in this post, where everyone works individually first, encourages equal creative contribution. Then the team can come together and do what teams to best: discuss, edit, and then iterate the best ideas.

Further Reading
Leigh Thompson, author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration
The Accidental Creative
Guilford’s 3 Factor

What Has Worked For You?
Have you had success or failure with brainstorming? Why?

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