Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Problems with Brainstorming

Two Dutch researchers have published an academic study on the problems with brainstorming (How the Group Affects the Mind: A Cognitive Model of Idea Generation in Groups by Bernard Nijstad and Wolfgang Stroebe). They write, “Most people believe that idea generation is best performed in groups… However, controlled research has consistently shown that people produce fewer ideas and ideas of lower quality when they work in a group as compared with when they work alone. Thus, contrary to popular belief, group interaction inhibits the ideation process.”

The biggest problem is “production blocking” – i.e., the tendency of group members to take turns in sharing new ideas. This causes great ideas to be lost while people wait on a parade of mediocre ideas before it’s their turn again. Production blocking is closely connected to group size; it is a bigger problem for large groups than small ones.

Nijstad and Strobe offer several concrete recommendations for improving brainstorming sessions:
  • Use electronic brainstorming (or brainwriting) instead of verbal brainstorming.
  • If verbal brainstorming is unavoidable, keep the groups small. Break up larger groups.
  • Encourage participants to pay attention to each other’s ideas.
  • Stay on track. Don’t allow side conversations or lengthy exposition of ideas.
  • Take frequent, short breaks.
Finally, note that the Lateral Thinking techniques offer concrete methods for idea generation and are far superior to traditional brainstorming. For example, a Lateral Thinking ideation session begins with independent, individual ideation – exactly the sort of methodology that eliminates production blocking.

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