Effective alternatives to brainstorming

Ideation is a critical phase in project development, yet all too often, it is reduced to a whiteboard, a set of post-its, and a scramble to emerge with a socially satisfactory conclusion. However, decades of research have uncovered a series of techniques that can help innovators get the most out of the ideation phase. The purpose of this article is to discuss why traditional brainstorming often fails, and techniques that can navigate these roadblocks.

Standard brainstorming

In a typical brainstorm session, a group attempts to generate ideas in a two-stage process (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987). The first stage involves an open environment where participants are encouraged to avoid evaluation, vocalize a large number of outlandish ideas, and build upon other participants’ contributions. In the second stage, people evaluate the ideas, often by means of coding, categorization, and discussion.

Through this process, brainstorming aims to generate a wide assortment of ideas, and then narrow this selection through careful reasoning. Brainstorming is an incredibly popular technique for firms and groups to innovate, but as has been repeatedly noted by both academics (Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991) and the mainstream press (Lehrer, 2012), brainstorming simply isn’t that productive.

Although the general procedure described in the paragraph above may appear very effective at promoting creativity and open discussion, research into brainstorming paints a different picture. Take as evidence a recent study where groups of four participants were randomly assigned to generate ideas aloud (i.e. brainstorming), or in silence (Kohn & Smith, 2011). Not only did the silent groups produce a higher quantity of ideas, they also were more creative, exploring a larger quantity of categories for the proposed topic.

Obstacles in brainstorming

As the authors of the 2011 study note, this finding is not without precedent; the deficits in productivity in brainstorming sessions are well documented (e.g. Diehl & Stroebe, 1987). Such findings are often attributed to a number of factors, including (but not limited to) group-think (the tendency for groups to converge early on a particular idea at the expense of viable alternatives), evaluation apprehension (fear of ridicule for ‘bad’ ideas), and free-riding (exploiting the efforts of others). Production blocking can also be a barrier: When others are voicing their own inspiration, it can be difficult to come up with your ideas (Nijstad, Stroebe, & Lodewijkx, 2003). This creates a creativity bottleneck and ultimately decreases the number of ideas generated.

More recently, researchers have also identified another factor that can harm creativity: information (Montag-Smit & Maertz, 2017). In particular, providing participants factual information (content directly relevant to the task at hand) prior to an idea generation task decreased the total number of ideas generated. Factual information also decreased ‘flexibility’, meaning that the ideas participants came up with were narrower in scope. Evidently anchoring people to initial information can constrain their creativity and cause them to fixate on the facts, rather than thinking outside the box.

Thus, traditional models of brainstorming are structured such that a number of human-level barriers naturally emerge. However, what good is a diverse team of creative minds if they aren’t able to collaborate and discuss their ideas? How you combine the productivity realized by individual idea generation with the benefits that group ideation offers (i.e. group input and debate)?

Ideating in silence

One effective alternative to brainstorming is the Nominal Group Technique (NGT; Delbecq & Van de Ven, 1971). The main divergence of NGT from brainstorming is that it begins not with vocal contributions, but instead with the silent generation of ideas on paper or post-its. Participants then present their ideas in alternation until all ideas are recorded. This is followed by a thorough discussion of each idea, and then a voting session. Lastly, a final discussion follows based on the results of the voting, and in some cases, this leads to a final vote.

This approach allows groups to avoid the pitfalls described in the previous paragraph such as groupthink (the silence prevents any convergence too early) and production blocking (you don’t have to be constantly listening to others’ ideas). Moreover, this technique has been revealed to be far more effective than brainstorming. A meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of a number of other studies) has shown that NGT is consistently more productive than brainstorming (Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991).

Other methods of idea generation

‘Brainwriting’ is a similar technique to NGT, and solves many of the same problems (Paulus & Brown, 2007). Participants write down ideas on post-its with different colored pens, and after each idea, the post-its circulate. This way people gain inspiration from the other members’ ideas but are not faced with production blocking. The colored pens also lend accountability and encourage people to differentiate themselves from the other ideas, addressing issues of social loafing and groupthink.

What if you don’t have access to your whole team? There has been some research conducted on ‘electronic brainstorming’, wherein team members share ideas remotely (e.g. via Skype; Gallupe, 1992). This strategy relies upon the same structure as a technique like brainwriting, however, the participants are not in the same physical room. Although at low numbers this technique was found to be weaker than standard brainstorming, in groups large enough (i.e. larger than eight), it can be incredibly effective.

Systematic ideation

It is often easy to think of the human element of innovation exclusively from the consumer side (e.g. attitudes towards technology, adoption rates). However, the human element is just as critical on the design side, and behavioral considerations are essential to successful innovation. Despite the high prevalence of brainstorming, a substantial quantity of research has revealed a variety of psychological barriers that can constrict creativity and render the outcome ineffective. Using such tried-and-tested systems as the NGT or brainwriting can ensure that firms leverage the full extent of their team’s creativity.


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