Better Brainstorming: Individually or Together?

Marc Andressen quotes Frans Johansson’s book “The Medici Effect”:

In a [1987 study, researchers] concluded that brainstorming groups have never outperformed virtual groups. Of the 25 reported experiments by psychologists all over the world, real groups have never once been shown to be more productive than virtual groups. In fact, real groups that engage in brainstorming consistently generate about half the number of ideas they would have produced if the group’s individuals had [worked] alone.

It is hard to believe (as with any categorical statement) that this is a final verdict. Some bloggers correctly point that done right, brainstorming is a powerful tool (here and here). Mindtools.com and Wikipedia describe effective brainstorming process.

However, group brainstorming indeed has potential risks for generating less and lower quality ideas:

  1. Ideas that challenge conventional wisdom are suppressed or considered mistaken
  2. People can change or even disregard own ideas while listening to ideas from others, especially authoritative sources
  3. Sticking with the crowd causes less willingness for risky and innovative ideas.

Effective brainstorm process avoids these problems when:

  1. People investigated the topic before the meeting and come prepared with own ideas and considerations.
  2. People are diverse, have different perspective and background. They bring specialized and tacit knowledge to the table.
  3. People are encouraged to think independently, creatively and don’t criticize others. Everybody contributes as equal; ideas could be even presented anonymously.

I experienced myself both successful and unproductive brainstorming sessions. I found that good brainstorming session produces ideas, which are better and more than just selection from individual ideas. It is real enjoyment to see when people create ideas, enrich each other thinking and generate new wonderful and unseen ideas. A side effect is important: people consider themselves as a part of the process, feeling ownership and control. They accept final ideas readily, better understand these ideas and are committed to implement them. This is a way to become self-organizing team.

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