It makes sense in theory. Coming up with fresh ideas is hard. And we all know that misery loves company. The coffee and donuts don’t hurt, either.
Problem is, brainstorming has its faults. Quite a few, actually. And while it might have been a revolutionary idea when Mad Man Alex Osborn invented the process back in the 1940’s, since then, we’ve learned that while a group can be good for some things, like building a house or forming a cheerleading pyramid, when it comes to generating breakthrough ideas, the group dynamic falls short.
Problem 1: Brainstorming kills originality
Group brainstorming leads to what’s referred to as groupthink. Instead of original ideas, people tend to latch onto what’s already been said, thereby squashing creativity like a mosquito.
In a group setting people tend to seek praise and approval. Nobody wants to looks stupid or challenge the boss. This stifles free thought and originality. Even though proper brainstorming technique involves suspending judgment, it’s only human nature to seek the approval of others. As a result, the truly unique ideas often die a quick death, never being said for fear they may sound impractical, ridiculous, or just plain dumb.
Problem 2: Brainstorming promotes laziness
Group brainstorms encourage lazy thinking. Because responsibility is diffused among all the participants, people tend to work less hard to solve the problem. If one person doesn’t come up with a solution, somebody else will. No biggie. Which makes group ideation sessions less productive than individual ones.
Problem 3: Brainstorming favors the bold
In most brainstorming sessions, the most vocal and outgoing ones end up doing most of the talking. The louder people are often more pushy and persuasive, giving their opinions more weight in the group. But many creative types tend to be introverts by nature. Of course, not everybody comes up with ideas the same way or thrives in the same environments. And so the ideas of the quieter ones often go unheard, leaving them out of the process.
Clearly, traditional brainstorming isn’t all its cracked up to be. So what’s the solution?
Follow these steps to leverage your team and maximize both the quantity and quality of the ideas you generate:
Step 1: Think solo
Have people start out by spending time thinking of ideas individually (brainstorming actually works much better as an individual activity than a group one). This way, the initial idea generation phase will exist independent of the group dynamic, giving everyone a fair chance to approach the problem in the way that’s best for them.
Step 2: Relax your brain
Another advantage to coming up with ideas individually is that our brains work best that way. The stressful, think-by-the-seat-of-your-pants environment stifles real creativity. Science has proven that the best ideas come from relaxed brains—especially ones that are focused on something other than the problem at hand. Which is why you often get your best ideas on the treadmill—not seated around a large conference room table with twelve pairs of eyes bearing down on you.
Step 3: Evaluate anonymously
Once everyone’s had a chance to consider the problem, put everything up on the wall anonymously. This allows the solutions to be evaluated equally based on the ideas themselves rather than who came up with it. It also gives every idea—and every employee—an equal voice. It spares the individual the stress of looking foolish. And since nobody knows who did what, it’s easier to evaluate the ideas on their own merits rather than on office politics and personalities.
Step 4: Discuss as a group
Once the ideas are up on the board, have everybody come together to discuss what’s there. Employees can evaluate the ideas more fairly and work together to develop certain ones further.
Any time there’s a group, there will be a group dynamic in effect, but following this approach of working both individually and together will lead to much more productive sessions as well as generating a higher quality and quantity of ideas.
And as for those donuts, it’s probably best to skip those, too.