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Reasons why your group brainstorm might suck

by | Aug 24, 2017

Here at Now Go Create we run brilliant brainstorm training to help those who have to lead the creative charge to bring their people along with them. So you might be wondering why the headline above?  So does group brainstorming work? There are lots of studies that show that it doesn’t when it is done badly, and people would be better off being asked to generate ideas by themselves. There are lots of psychological explanations for why brainstorms can fall flat. Here are 5 common ones:

  1. Social loafing: This lovely phrase describes how there’s a tendency for people to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than alone. They can sit back and ‘loaf’ as other people take the strain.
  2. Social anxiety: We worry that people will judge our ideas so are less likely to share them in a group.
  3. Production blocking: If no tools or process is engaged then only one idea at a time can be expressed. If you subscribe to the ‘sit in a room and shout things out’ method (not one we advocate) then the amount of airtime people have to share ideas is limited. One of the most frequently asked questions in workshops is whether there’s an ideal number of people. It’s a tricky thing to navigate. We’ve successfully run them for over 100 and had bad experiences with 5 people. Airtime is a crucial consideration. By that I mean that if you have 30 minutes and 10 people then without process at absolute best, everyone will only have 3 minutes. But of course that doesn’t even begin to consider the different personality types in the room.
  4. Regression to the mean: Ideas are only as good as the most average person in the room. This is a well known effect in sport where the most talented group members end up matching more mediocre performance.
  5. Personality types – your group will be made up introverts, extraverts and ambiverts – group brainstorms really only cater to one preference.

So if it’s so ineffective why do we keep on doing it? It’s the default for many organisations when they don’t know what else to do. There’s also subscribe to the old adage that ‘2 heads are better than 1.’ At Now Go Create we believe that collaboration is an essential part of the creative process, but it needs to be structured and managed to get the best results. It helps to know exactly where you are in the creative process and to manage your own and other people’s time accordingly. Brainstorms can also make people feel better about the process and can have a feel-good team dimension but don’t confuse that with actually generating ideas.

Badly done brainstorms are what my colleague Anahita describes as

  • “the untrained, leading the unwilling, to do the unnecessary”.

But with a trained facilitator (yes that means you) then they can be a way to generate a volume of ideas rapidly and involve many different points of view.

I’ve run (and participated in) hundreds of brainstorms, with varying levels of success and I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t one fail-safe way to run a brainstorm. If push came to shove would I choose never to run one again? I’m not sure.

But what I do know is that if you are going to get people together, ask for their opinions and gather their ideas (and call this for want of a better word, a brainstorm) then being trained in facilitation skills can help you navigate different personality types, keep things on track and help to manage divergent and convergent thinking. That is – broadening things out when you need more options – and knowing when to narrow things down and begin to apply criteria.

Here are some ways to overcome some of the challenges outlined above:

  1. Have a ‘silent brainstorm’. Include individual exercises throughout a workshop and give people ways to share the ideas that are written as well as oral – and have been review them silently too before discussing.
  2. Work in creative pairs outside the room then bring a bigger group together to discuss the ideas generated.
  3. Or ask individuals to spend time beforehand and bring ideas to the room.
  4. Follow some rules – IDEOS are a good place to start

Defer judgement.

Encourage wild ideas.

Build on the ideas of others.

Stay focused on the topic.

One conversation at a time.

Be visual.

Go for quantity.

5. Circulate a well-formed problem statement in advance or do a stand-up briefing in advance of your workshop then regroup for idea generation.

6. Make sure the session is structured to allow for evaluation at key stages throughout.

7. Use digital tools to collate and share information – we love www.usecandor.com for bias-free idea generation

8. Get out of the office and get creative with your space. You could head to a museum or a gallery  or get outside.

So there’s no silver bullet to getting the best out of other people but learning facilitation skills will help you to manage brainstorms and workshops much better. Here’s what people say about our courses:

“By far one of the best courses I have been on which has so many practical applications to my job role, a brilliant course, loved it.” Carl Christopher Ansari, workshop facilitator

One of the best bits of training I’ve done in 12 years.” Director, Hill+Knowlton London

Loved every minute of it!” Alice Ter Haar, Deliveroo

Brainstorm training is not just for Creative Directors it’s for anyone with the power to call a meeting.” Matt Wright, Creative Director, Given

You can find out more about creative process in Claire’s book  In Your Creative Element or contact Lucy@nowgocreate.co.uk to find out more about our courses.

Never run a rubbish brainstorm again. Learn how to facilitate and unleash the power of collaboration in your workshops and brainstorms.