In this second part of what seems to have turned into a series on brainstorming, all by itself, 😉 I want to discuss group brainstorming in some more detail. Learn about its advantages and disadvantages, and how to group-brainstorm effectively.
In Part 1, I introduced the concept of brainstorming in general. It was originally seen as a group activity for companies that needed to be creative by profession (advertising). Thus, the group has been the focus of much brainstorming research, and the technique has been under severe criticism since.
Although my main focus in this blog is on the individual being creative for fun, I will digress a bit here to group brainstorming in companies/educational institutions for the simple reason that I cannot really think of a private event where I would group-brainstorm. Maybe the planning of a bachelorette party with friends or planning a vacation trip with the family. However, we often encounter it on the internet in the form of forums and discussion boards.
This is not surprising, though, as Osborn originally devised the technique for the workplace. He believed that groups were more effective in finding ideas than individuals working alone. While later research has now refuted his findings, group brainstorming is still immensely popular with companies and educational institutions. Why is that?
For starters, I’d say this is because group brainstorming still has a good reputation in popular opinion. We are taught the technique in school at a young age and encounter it everywhere afterward. So there must be something to it, we think. Since we associate group brainstorming with work, it is not something we would readily think of doing for leisure, though.
Disadvantages of Group Brainstorming
Secondly, I guess it is popular with institutions because it is something that can be scheduled. We got stuck, oh, let’s schedule a brainstorming meeting. Problem is, creativity does not occur on demand if there has not been a culture of creativity in this institution/company to begin with. Researchers found that teaching people how brainstorming works increases the quality and quantity of ideas generated. And you cannot expect people who have been encouraged to take the line of least resistance and to conform to company policies all their working life to suddenly be a creative bunch just because they enter a conference room and start brainstorming. The same is true for children in a classroom, by the way.
This is the catch of group brainstorming: It only works if …
… the group members match (which definitely does not mean that they agree on everything, then there would be no variety and they could just as well be brainstorming alone), and
… if the atmosphere is relaxed and open. As soon as there are interpersonal tensions between group members, if some members are biased, if they don’t feel that they are equals, and/or if they have very divergent views, brainstorming is not very productive because most energy goes into group dynamics rather than into producing ideas.
These two criteria are often not fulfilled, neither in education nor at work. Moreover, even if we try not to, we often do have fears that our ideas might be judged negatively by others. With reason, I think, because even if those others try not to judge us based on our ideas, they unconsciously still do.
There is also a phenomenon that psychologists call “social loafing.” This means that the bigger the group, the more active the other participants, the less we feel we have to contribute because the group is already very productive without us. We can safe our energy.
Another big problem of group brainstorming is that we are constantly interrupted in our flow of generating ideas while waiting for others to finish theirs. This is distracting and causes us to forget ideas before we can say them. We are busy paying attention to what the others are saying instead of generating ideas ourselves.
As in many areas in life, introverted people are disadvantaged in common group brainstorming meetings. The extroverts, who are also often the ones with the most power in the group, with their self-confidence and loud voice get all the attention, while the introverts, who have good ideas as well, often don’t dare to speak up or are steamrolled when they try. But, lo! and behold, look how productive and active introverts can be if they are among themselves.
Advantages of Group Brainstorming
This is not a petition against group brainstorming, though. It can generate good results if the group works well together. Different people have different views, experiences, knowledge, approaches etc. If you combine these, this might increase the richness of ideas generated. Especially when people come from a wider range of disciplines. If one person builds on the ideas of the others, there might be results an individual would not have come up with when working alone. If the team gets off well already, it can definitely support team building and be a lot of fun.
The technique works. If, and only if, the participants are allowed to have fun at it.
My Experience with Group Brainstorming
I’ve done a lot of brainstorming in my time, mostly at school and later at university. One experience sticks out, though, that I had in a creative writing workshop. We’d talked about the basic ‘stories’ every tale can be boiled down to, such as “Man vs. Nature” or “Hero on Quest.” We then came together in groups of three to develop a story starting only with one of those basic storylines. The teacher didn’t call it brainstorming, but that is exactly what it was. We did this twice, each time with a different group.
So, why is this important? Because it taught me, with a vengeance, how much the success of brainstorming depends on the group. With the first group, I got off perfectly. We bounced ideas around, it just worked and was a lot of fun, and at the end we had a great story outline for a sci-fi action story that might just have been turned into the next Hollywood blockbuster starring Bruce Willis. 😉
Some time later, we did that same exercise again. Different group, different luck. The whole process felt stiff and we just couldn’t really agree on anything. We didn’t finish the storyline in the given time, and I doubt any of us really liked the result.
Group Brainstorming Techniques
There are many ways to structure a brainstorming meeting. Participants might …
– work in smaller groups before discussing ideas with the entire group,
– take on different roles during brainstorming (e.g. that of a dreamer, a critic etc.),
– write down ideas alone before and in between,
– communicate with the others in writing rather than in discussion (e.g. by passing on sheets of paper and adding to the ideas that are there) etc.
It might take some time to figure out the best technique for your group, but it is important to do so. Every group is different, depending on its participants and how they function as a group. If the group’s needs are not taken into account, the result might be far from satisfactory.
Do everyone a favor: If you find that the participants just don’t work as a brainstorming team, find some other technique. The most brilliant and creative minds might fail miserably at group brainstorming because they just don’t match.
What to Keep an Eye On?
Choose and prepare the location carefully. There should be no disruptions and no noise. Make sure that participants feel comfortable and can relax. Beverages and comfortable seating are a good start. Make sure that the necessary materials are there: pens, paper, sticky notes, a board …
In choosing materials, go for color! Colored paper and pens are fun and help to structure without much effort.
Give ideas room. Make sure that no-one criticizes or praises others’ ideas in the idea-finding stage.
Agree to disagree. 😉 When discussing ideas in later stages, don’t try to convince every single group member of one idea. Maybe there is a possibility that smaller groups might form and work on different ideas. Maybe the input of a devil’s advocate is vital to the discussion. Don’t try for harmony’s sake to get everyone in line. That is not the point. On the other hand, if you realize that the group spends more time arguing then finding solutions, the composition of the group might be off.
Don’t make the group too big. Five to seven people are usually enough. If the group becomes bigger, the individual members will not get enough room for their thoughts and it will get too chaotic.
Encourage everyone to contribute. If they feel relaxed and respected and cut each other some slack, both introverted and extroverted participants can work well together.
While group brainstorming CAN be useful but mustn’t, depending on group composition and previous knowledge of brainstorming, individual brainstorming is also very popular. I will look at this in more detail in Part 3. Stay tuned. 😉