Image: Fortune Live Media (Flickr)

I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (As an introvert myself, I found it refreshing and full of hope. We introverts have a lot to offer!) One of the topics that Cain deals with at some length is a question we’ve been pondering at Foresight Alliance. What’s the most effective way to gather ideas from a group of people, group them, prioritize them, and consider their implications? We face this need both internally and in processes we design and execute for our clients. Cain is concerned about this question because she observes that many highly creative introverts seem to prefer to work alone, and do their best work when they have the option of choosing a workplace free of interruptions.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of traditional brainstorming—the sort where you gather a group in a room, throw out a challenge (the “problem statement”) and then start collecting ideas from the group. The difficulty, as Susan Cain and many others point out, is that “group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.” That is, while group brainstorming can generate a lot of ideas, many studies have demonstrated that when people work individually they generate more ideas than they do when working as a group, ideas of equal or better quality. The exception is that online brainstorming, when well-managed, produces better results than individual ideation. (It should also be mentioned that face-to-face group brainstorming does yield a side benefit—it can help to build teamwork.)

According to Cain there are three primary reasons for the relative ineffectiveness of group brainstorming: “social loafing” (participants can let someone else carry the load), “production blocking” (only one participant talks at a time), and “evaluation apprehension” (participants don’t want to look dumb). Evaluation apprehension may be the most important of the three.

While I’m not ready to suggest a “killer process” that avoids all of these issues and is the one best way to gather and filter ideas, I have four suggestions for processes that improve on traditional brainstorming.

The first is a tweak. If you plan to do traditional group brainstorming, start with what my colleagues in the innovation group at Kraft Foods R&D used to call the “cranium drainium”—the brain dump. Give each participant a pad of sticky notes, present the problem statement, then ask participants to write down all of the ideas they can come up with, one idea per sticky note. Only after the writing slows or stops do you begin collecting ideas and sharing them with the group. You can organize the ideas as you collect them. (“Who’d like to share an idea?” [A volunteer reads an idea; facilitator places the corresponding sticky note on the wall.] “Okay, who has something similar to that idea or something related to it?” [Read and gather all related ideas.] “If we’re done with that topic, who would like to give us an idea that will start a new topic?” [Continue until the group has read all sticky notes.])

The second suggestion is another brainstorming method that I like a lot, called brainwriting. In the version I know, each participant receives a blank sheet of paper divided into, for example, 6 squares. After the facilitator presents the problem statement, participants are asked to write an idea in one of the squares on their paper, working individually. After everyone has written one idea, each participant passes his/her paper to another participant. Participants are asked to read the idea on they paper they’ve just received, then write a second idea in another square. The second idea may be related to the first one or build on it, or it may be a separate thought. Participants continue exchanging papers and adding ideas until all squares are filled or energy lags. This method is highly efficient—everyone is generating ideas simultaneously. (In fact, brainwriting can generate so many ideas that it takes quite a while to gather them all.) It guarantees equal “air time” for all participants–the loudest voice doesn’t dominate. Most or all of the ideas can be anonymous—participants need not know who produced the other ideas on the sheet in their hand.

My next two suggestions move away from traditional brainstorming with everyone in the same room at the same time. I’ll save those for a second post.

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