by Stephanie Gioia, Director of Consulting at XPLANE
“Brainstorming” is a dirty word these days. It conjures up images of people shouting out ideas, getting hit by unreliable bolts of “a-ha” lightning, and touchy-feely groupthink. We know that the original tenants of brainstorming, developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s, were somewhat flawed.
Social scientists and researchers can point to concepts like free riding, groupthink, framing and anchoring as detrimental to the creative process. Susan Cain sums it up in her article Rise of the New Groupthink: “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” It’s true. But the great thing about all this research is it’s taught us how to do brainstorming right – how to design group interaction for maximum creativity and results.
When it comes to generating new ideas, here are six principles, supported by what we know from research.
1. Don’t let your firestarter be an anchor.
Consider the difference between asking a group, “What should we buy for Greg’s birthday?” versus, “How might we make Greg’s birthday amazing?” We call these framing questions firestarters. How a firestarter is worded (“might” vs. “should”, open vs. limiting) makes a huge difference in how your participants view the challenge before them.
2. Individuals, first; groups, second.
Never start a brainstorm by opening the floor to shout out ideas. As social creatures, participants have a cognitive bias to anchor their thoughts relative to the first idea they hear. Start by asking participants to take a few moments by themselves to generate as many ideas as they can.
3. Make prolific specific.
When brainstorming individually, everyone slows down at a certain point – the real magic happens when participants search beyond the initial set of ideas and dig for more. When participants begin to slow down, ask them to count up their ideas, divide by two, and then stretch to come up with that many more.
4. Use proper post-up form.
Our tried-and-true method for sharing the ideas participants have generated individually is called a post-up. Participants take turns sharing their ideas, each written on a separate post-it, card or piece of paper. Say each idea out loud before posting it on a wall, limiting commentary just to clarifying questions. All ideas must be posted – no weeding out!. As you post up, affinity map the ideas, placing them close to similar ones. Even if your idea is the same as someone else’s, post it up – it helps the group detect patterns and trends. You may hear things like “I took a different approach” or “this doesn’t really fit with anything up here, but…” This is a good sign! These are ideas that wouldn’t have been vocalized if you had started with group discussion.
5. Encourage perspective-taking.
The tendency at this stage is for participants to become possessive of their ideas – they’re so excited about the brilliant things they came up with, they can’t help themselves! Head that off with an activity that requires them to build on the ideas of others. We like to ask participants to pick a favorite idea that wasn’t theirs and build three new ideas that relate to it. The result is magical; participants lose their ego about their own ideas and start to get excited about someone else’s.
6. Use structure to evaluate ideas.
Brainstorming is not just about divergent and emergent idea generation. There are many methods for closing a brainstorm, from dot voting to an impact/effort matrix to the NUF Test (Gamestorming outlines these and other closing exercises). A structured activity reduces the influence of emotion and personal judgment, keeping participants focused on objective evaluation criteria rather than arguing.
By applying these six principles to brainstorming in your organization, you’ll find you avoid the groupthink, free-riding, and lack of critical thinking that can plague so many ideation efforts. Give it a try and let us know your results!
Stephanie Gioia leads the consulting practice at XPLANE, a Portland-based business design consultancy that helps large organizations clarify, communicate, and achieve their goals. Prior to XPLANE, Stephanie worked with IDEO on envisioning the future of design thinking. Her roles at UBS included international process documentation, improvement and implementation, and organizational design.