People love to get together for group brainstorming sessions. At the end of the sessions, participants often report their collective sense of accomplishment and enjoyment of the experience. And although customer satisfaction rests, in part, on an enjoyable experience, if you stop asking questions there, you’re not getting the whole story.
Even though groups generally enjoy their brainstorming efforts, it turns out that people in groups actually tend to generate fewer ideas than they would if they were to brainstorm individually and then submit their ideas to be compiled later. This counter-intuitive finding rests on several factors, some related to group dynamics issues, and some with their roots in the cognitive resources of the individuals in the group.
On the group dynamics side, social matching and social loafing seem to play a part. Social matching means that, consciously or not, people like to be like their peers, and they’ll modify their own behavior to match the behavior of their group. In the context of a group formed for the purpose of brainstorming, members of the group tend to come up with about the same number of ideas as their peers. Social loafing, on the other hand, is a term that describes the tendency for people to expend less individual effort when working in a group than they would if they were working on their own.
The cognitive costs to the individuals in the group can also undermine the efforts of the group. Most brainstorming session designs, for example, presuppose that participants will announce their thoughts to the group as they occur, and that someone will record the ideas generated by the group. It’s a good idea in theory, but the practice creates a bottleneck: people have to wait for others to finish before they can contribute their own ideas. While they’re waiting, they may forget or even second-guess what they were planning to say. In addition, if the session generates a lot of discussion, the participants are following the discussion at the same time they’re supposed to be generating ideas. As a result, they can’t give their full attention to either task, and are probably slower to perform each one.
What to do about it
Individual brainstorming may generate more ideas than collective brainstorming, but the enthusiasm group brainstorming participants bring to the task is itself a desirable outcome. By combining the right strategies and the right technologies, a good moderator can foster both efficiency and enthusiasm. Here are three things you can do:
- Make sure the group understands the importance of the session. One of the best ways to prevent social loafing is to make sure the participants understand the value of their contributions and of the task itself. If the session has importance for your project or your organization, that’s information the participants should have.
- Add a synchronous meeting tool. Your
group may be meeting in person, but one of the quickest ways to boost the
efficiency of a brainstorming session is to eliminate the bottleneck of having
a single record-keeper. Any tool that includes a group chat feature will do. You
can begin the discussion as you normally would, and even start off as the
record keeper. Once the group gets on a roll, though, step out of the way, and
ask the participants to enter their ideas directly into the group chat. They’ll
still have the momentum from meeting together in a group, but because they’re
entering their own ideas directly, they won’t have to wait before they add
their ideas to the pot.
In this format, (digital, but in the same room), social matching can become a productivity boost. As long as the group members nearby are busy typing ideas into the system, individuals will have to continue typing their ideas into the system if they want to match their peers. Making each person his or her own record-keeper helps combat social loafing, too. Even though everyone is sitting together in a group, each person in the group now has his or her own task — writing down ideas.
- Keep the intervals short. Finally, it’s important to remember that adding technology to the process can remove some of the spontaneity that many of the group members enjoyed in the first place. To guard against that, try to keep the intervals where the group is typing relatively short. Ten minutes is a good rule of thumb, but if the groups’ energy seems to be flagging before that, it’s fine to take a break early. Stopping for a while to talk about other things and then returning to the brainstorming task can actually help stimulate some new ideas, as well as keeping the group interested and involved.
Group brainstorming can be a great way to mine the best ideas of the group, and to focus a team on a common goal. With the right strategies and a little technology, your group brainstorming session can help you get the most from the team.
Kohn, N.W. and Smith, S.M. (2010) Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming. Applied Cognitive Psychology. (www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.1699