Better Group Brainstorming

Better Group Brainstorming

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?

I Love Failure

I recently led my training seminar How To Become a Creative Superhero for The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). A critical lesson in the seminar is that failure is essential to success. I know…this seems wacky. But we must fail, and the benefits are below. Embracing failure as part of your creative process lands you on the path to marketing (and life) success.

If You’re Not Failing, You’re Not Living
Much of marketing professional services is demonstrating meaningful differentiation from your competitors. To do so, you’ve got to consistently communicate your uniqueness in new ways. Being different requires taking risks. Hugh Mcleaod says “great new ideas have lonely childhoods.” Creating something new can be messy, uncomfortable and unknown. It requires great courage. Even the world’s best fail. “Talent and intelligence never innoculate anyone against failure,” reminds J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard Graduation Speech, The Fringe Benefits of Failure

The Benefits of Failure
Failure teaches you things that you could learn no other way. As Bucky Fuller says, “You can never learn less; you can only learn more. The reason I know so much is because I have made so many mistakes.” This philosophy is the heart of the Japanese business concept “kaizen” (continual improvement). By pushing against, and breaking through boundaries, you develop a range of acceptable solutions. It’s also liberating to have your biggest fear (failure) be realized, and know you are still alive to create brilliance. Your subconscious mind wants you to succeed. You can see this in mini-failures that are actually “happy accidents.” This happened to me recently in a client presentation when the words out of my mouth were not what I intended (aka Freudian slip), but were actually considerably better. Be sure to recognize the gifts of failure when they show up in your creative process.

Build Failure Into Your Process
Like life itself, the creative process is beyond our total control. Accept it when failure shows up as a guest in your creative house. Greet failure and keep moving. This simple acceptance opens you up to the creative magic that will flow. The goal is to embrace failure early and frequently. You can even make it fun. Consider offering a booby prize to the person that comes up with the most ridiculous idea in your next brainstorming session. Be sure to save your ideas that don’t make the cut. They are simply solutions to the next creative problem. Plus, nobody has to see your “sketches.” You only need to unveil your final work of art.

Failure is like spinach for Popeye: it doesn’t kill us and only makes us stronger. The mind once stretched to a new idea never regains its original shape. Now take your newfound love of failure and incorporate it into your next creative marketing project.

Michael Jordan Failure Ad

How to Become a Creative Superhero

As we leave the Information Age to enter the Conceptual Age, we need a new kind of hero. Dan Pink declares in A Whole New Mind that right-brainers will rule the future. Creative ideas are the currency successful marketers use to elevate their firm, stretch their budget and build their brand. But unlike superheros, creative ideas don’t just magically appear when you need them. Similar to Bruce Wayne entering the batcave to become Batman, here is a process that will transcend you from mere mortal into Creative Superhero.

1. Define the Task – First you must determine what is needed, why now, who is it for, and what resources are available. Creativity also craves boundaries (like a deadline and budget.) Be sure to elicit early support from anyone that can approve or reject your ideas. This phase should culminate in a creative brief that will be a target to use when measuring possible solutions. For a free sample of a creative brief template that we use at LecoursDesign, click here.

2. Investigate – Immerse yourself in your audience’s world and ask illuminating questions. Within the answers, creative solutions will begin to emerge. Search for a way to connect with your audience on an emotional level.

3. Create – Let the ideas flow by focusing on quantity over quality. I heed an image on my studio wall that says “Do Not Fall in Love with Your First Idea.” There are no bad nor perfect ideas. Make it playful and fun. Break this phase up into several short sessions and always be ready to capture ideas in between. Be sure to drink from a well of creative inspiration because output is directly related to input. Silence your inner critic “faster than a speeding bullet” or it will weaken you like Kryptonite.

4. Incubate – Leave your initial ideas alone for a day or two. There’s a reason people say they get their best ideas in the shower, on a walk, or while driving. The subconscious mind is powerful if you just let it emerge.

5. Analyze – Eliminate the weaker solutions from phase 3. Watch for safe ideas that your boss or client may like but you know aren’t exceptional. Don’t let the good get in the way of the great.

6. Refine – Prototype and refine the top 2-3 solutions while continually looking for improvements. If stuck, review the brief from phase 1.

7. Deliver – Make a big deal of presenting your ideas. Give them the reverence they deserve by presenting in person. Anticipate any concerns before presenting.

8. Measure – Create a feedback loop by measuring success against the objectives established in phase 1 for continual improvement.

We are all creative and I believe that innovating is a learned skill. Batman used his ingenuity to design the Batmobile and other cool gadgets to give him a competitive advantage. Nurturing your creativity can do the same for you.

Would you like me to lead an interactive in-house seminar or deliver a keynote speech to your organization on this topic? E-mail me to discuss.

* A / E / C = Architecture, Engineering, & Construction (but you already knew that)
© LecoursDesign 2023