Friday, April 15, 2011

Brainstorming dissected

Here's one I'm not sure if I believe. What do you think?

A recent article by Art Markham in Psychology Today, entitled "Building During Brainstorming,"suggests that brainstorming isn't always as productive as one might think. It is based on a paper in the May, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Nicholas Kohn, Paul Paulus, and YunHee Choi. First, it says:

There has been a lot of research on brainstorming over the years, and it generally shows that groups are less effective than individuals. That is, if you got a group of three people brainstorming, that group would come up with fewer ideas (and fewer good ideas) than if the people had worked alone. This observation that groups are less effective than individuals is called productivity loss.

Then, it poses the question:

A potentially powerful aspect of brainstorming, though, is the process of combining ideas. That is, after a set of ideas are generated, it may turn out that a combination of a few of the ideas is more effective than any of those individual ideas alone. Are groups more effective than individuals when combining ideas?

It depends.

[P]eople working in groups . . . were particularly productive when given rare ideas. [Rare ideas were ones that were unusual from the norm.] The groups generated combinations that were much more novel and yet still quite feasible to implement when given rare ideas. That is, groups seemed particularly well-suited to taking rare ideas and creating new and interesting combinations from them.

I am a bit skeptical mainly about the first part, in that I have seen very effective brainstorming sessions that have generated great ideas. In any event, in my view, the major value of brainstorming is not the substantive ideas that emerge. It is the creation of teamwork and collaboration along the way. In an organization, this is actually more important than the particular result. Brainstorming is a trust-building exercise that offers the advantage of helping people propose ideas without the burden of ownership, understand each other's interests, trade on differences, and thereby reach a sustainable negotiated result.


jonmcrawford said...

I think the lack of value that is being noted here is probably due to some aspect of groupthink.

Your point is good, that building consensus is just as important as the ideas themselves.

Barry Carol said...

I’m a fan of brainstorming personally. However, it’s important that the culture of the organization allows people to speak freely without fear of either ridicule or retribution from the boss if a proposed idea conflicts with the boss’ thinking. In a sense, I also think commenters on blogs like this are often, in effect, brainstorming from a distance. People from different fields and backgrounds can bring their varied perspectives and expertise to a subject or issue. At the least, everyone comes away with a broader understanding of its nuances and complexities than they had before.

David said...

In regard to the first question, you might be interested in looking at the process that Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures uses. ( I think it is clear that a group of people who get together to discuss a problem after they have thought about it individually, will be much more productive that a group that gets together and only hears about the topic for the first time then. That's why it makes sense to send out an agenda and handouts to be considered before committees meet. There is no 'rocket science' here. Just common sense. I find a lot of Psych "Research" not worth the name, especially the kind of stuff that finds its way into Psychology Today.

Anonymous said...

How much of what we think we know about humans is based on samples of college students?

The productivity of the 'rare idea' underscores the value of heterogeneity of perspectives, and shared interest in the outcome would serve as a motivating glue. Every committee should spend at least as much time soliciting information outside the circle as in, because chances are that they are too homogeneous, and the information circulated between them is stale.

A reciprocal way to look at the hypothesized loss of productivity that comes with cooperation, is the daily loss of information and motivation in organizations when diverse sources have poor access to idea generating channels. A large part of trust-building is listening, and become all the wiser as a result.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the point/value of most brainstorming sessions is to build trust or group cohesion, but rather to generate a solution(s).

jonmcrawford said...

"How much of what we think we know about humans is based on samples of college students? "

Wow, there's a scary thought.