Nowadays, brainstorming is a highly common practice in companies where teamwork is indispensable. The core idea behind the brainstorming strategy is to get access to the group's collective wisdom in order to drum up creative ideas for a project or particular task, develop already existing ideas, or solve problems.
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Brainstorming has been used for decades, and it seems great when everyone feels free to contribute their distinctive strengths to the conversation and build a better tomorrow alongside the team members. However, recent studies show that this strategy is not the best way to ensure innovation.
Among those studies is one prepared by Nicholas W. Kohn and Steven M. Smith. The authors found that brainstorming exercises can result in a fixation on one solution and the rejection of other inspirational ideas and exciting possibilities. This, in turn, can lead to an entrenched tradition of ideas instead of creating a space for new possibilities.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman's book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot expresses a similar idea. The author argues that people reach irrational decisions in groups, and strong-minded personalities often "[pressure] others into conforming, self-censorship, and create an illusion of unanimity." Wiseman says people become more creative and inventive outside of the crowd, and "for 70 years, people have been using brainstorming to stifle – not stimulate – their creative juices."
Brainstorming is also problematic for the following reasons:
- Time Constraints: Brainstorming sessions are often timed, and team members feel nervous about coming up with bright ideas too late.
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- Groupthink: People often agree with their colleagues simply for the sake of avoiding conflict. Moreover, extroverts tend to dominate group sessions.
- Fear of Criticism: Shy employees who prefer working individually may worry about the ways their concepts will be perceived by others and keep silent instead of sharing.
- Do-Nothingism: Some participants may bank on others to do all the work and put forth little effort, hoping that a wise decision will be reached without them.
Does all of this mean brainstorming is totally useless? Not exactly. For some teams, this type of activity can really bear fruit, especially when team leaders follow a few easy steps for improving its effectiveness:
- Give People Time to Think: This can be really helpful for introverts and shy team members who need some time to formulate an idea and articulate it clearly without being howled down by others.
- Seek Alternatives: If an employee wants to criticize or dismiss an idea offered by colleagues, they should provide an alternative.
- Define Roles: To increase brainstorming effectiveness, you can make use of psychologist Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" method and assign particular roles to every member.
But if brainstorming is not the right fit for your company or team – even with these tweaks – then it may be time for an alternative:
In "brainwriting," participants formulate ideas and write down their thoughts in silence. Without constant conversation going on, people can concentrate more. Participants share their ideas with the group once they are fully formed.
You can also use the "note-and-vote" method, where the group reaches consensus by voting on a list of ideas.
This method is analogous to how ants solve problems. While searching for food, individual ants leave traces so that other ants can follow them. Thus, the whole colony can arrive at food sources.
Brainswarming begins with writing a goal or a problem on a sheet of paper or a blackboard. Then, all the participants start silently seeking solutions (also in writing). This practice helps to find "top-down thinkers" who will delve into the goal and define a broad array of sub-goals and "bottom-up thinkers" who will produce the necessary resources for problem-solving and explain how they should be used. The solution is then found in the middle ground between these two types of thinkers.
You can learn more about brainswarming in this video.
Another variant is to start with a single idea, write down the basics, and pass the sheet of paper to others so that they can add their thoughts. In this way, you work collaboratively to flesh out a shallow idea and turn it into a strong concept.
4. Passive Brainstorming
With this technique, you leave an empty poster on the wall or an empty blackboard in the middle of the office and ask your employees to write down whatever comes to their minds (related to the project) over the next five days. Team members will have enough time to mull over their concepts and can amend their ideas with details they might have missed earlier.
A company should choose the way of creative thinking that fits its style and isn't in conflict with its corporate culture. Furthermore, a company always has the option to seek the help of experienced developers who can offer sophisticated software aimed at improving the problem-solving process.
Yana Yelina is a tech journalist at EffectiveSoft, a provider of innovative business intelligence software with specialists in a variety of domains, including healthcare, HR, trading and finance, logistics, and eCommerce. You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her via LinkedIn or Twitter.