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What are brainstorming sessions anyway?

Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.

In other words, brainstorming is a situation where a group of people meet to generate new ideas and solutions around a specific domain of interest in removing inhibitions. The idea is that people are encouraged to think more freely and suggest as many spontaneous new ideas as possible. All the ideas are noted down without criticism (haha) and after the brainstorming session the ideas are evaluated. The term was popularized in 1939, a marketer named Alex Osborn.

Osborn’s brainstorming principles will sound familiar to most modern workers, and they’ve held strong for more than 70 years. First, go for a high quantity of ideas—worry less about quality. Second, withhold criticism. Third, embrace wild ideas. Fourth, look for opportunities to combine or mix ideas.

But there is a serious problem with the notion of brainstorming. Mostly that Osborne was wrong..

Why classic brainstorming doesn’t work

With a bit of consideration we can see some reasons that brainstorming doesn’t actually work that well. Experiment after experiment has shown that people in brainstorming sessions produce fewer and lower quality ideas than those working alone (Furnham, 2000).

 

Group laziness

People stop applying effort to a frightening degree in certain types of group situations like brainstorming. If other people are talking, why should you get involved, is a typical response from a group perspective.

Evaluation apprehension

Although evaluation isn’t allowed in a traditional brainstorming session, everyone knows others are evaluating their input. Imagine the intern who has an idea but it’s in contradiction with the project leaders. Even if he has the best idea in the room, he’ll never speak out loud either through fear or because he believes others will have already thought of and dismissed it.

Production blocking

While one person is talking the others have to wait. They then forget or dismiss their ideas, which consequently never get spoken out. Just the format of the meeting itself or particular members monopolizing time can destroy creativity.

 So if you do have a problem and you need to come up with novel solutions, we have a severe issue. But wait, for many international groups, things get even worse!

Why international brainstorming groups are even worse.

Many multinational companies think of English as a band aid that resolves a huge number of complicated social, cultural and logistic issues. While it is true that some studies have shown people proficient in two languages can be more creative (Marloes van Dijk 2018). This is usually when a particular level of nearly bilingual level has been reached. Take a moment to try the following if you speak two languages, look around the room you are in and consider the details you could describe in your mother tongue. Now try to think about how well you could describe it in your second language.

How to reinvent brainstorming

Inspiration for ways to get around these problems comes from the research on electronic brainstorming. Gallupe and Cooper (1993) found that electronically mediated brainstormers generated more high quality ideas than face-to-face brainstorms.

In this research brainstormers typed in their ideas to a computer which also displayed other people’s ideas at the same time. This rather neatly gets around the social loafing and production blocking problems.

These ideas can be used to motivate face-to-face brainstormers to produce better results (from Furnham, 2000):

  • People should be encouraged to list ideas before coming to brainstorming sessions.
  • The number of ideas produced by each person should be monitored.
  • Problems should be broken down and group members should brainstorm components.
  • Groups should take breaks from each other.
  • High standards should be set for the number of ideas.
But why bother to try and ‘fix’ brainstorming at all? Why not just send people off individually to generate ideas if this is more efficient?

The answer is because of its ability to build consensus by giving participants the feeling of involvement in the process. People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

Also it emerges that groups do have a natural talent, which is the evaluation of ideas, rather than their creation. The conclusion of the psychological literature, therefore, is that people should be encouraged to generate ideas on their own and meetings should be used to evaluate these ideas. The same rule applies in business as in your personal life. Generating ideas about where to go on holiday, what to write that new sitcom about, what question your research should address, and so on, are best done alone.

Applying this in your team

The simplest way to apply this requires planning a meeting in advance. If you follow the steps below you’ll ensure a more productive problem solving meeting, remove language constraints and improve your team engagement.

1 Send the problems as early as possible.

Participants should be sent all the problems that are going to be discussed/brainstormed as early as possible before the meeting. This gives time for people with weaker language skills to translate and maybe send private messages to really understand the problem that’s being raised.

2 Every participant should suggest at least 3-5 solutions

These should be sent to the team leader or chair before the day of the meeting by forcing everyone to write ideas, people will not get lazy and everyone will have to participate.

3 All ideas should be summarized into a document before the meeting

The brainstorm leader should make a document of all ideas sent and fuse any repeated ideas together. All the suggestions should be made anonymous, that will aid the group to evaluate them without fear or prejudice about the authority of the source. This document should be sent to all participants before the meeting, preferably hours or a day before so that again weaker language members have time to prepare and consider all the ideas on the table.

4 Last minute thoughts

It’s possible that the list of ideas has caused members of the group to rethink their position or have another idea. It’s up to the Brainstorm team leader to decide if these merit inclusion into the document. Then sending an updated list to everyone.

5 No interruptions of people talking

The participants should all have had ample to discuss and evaluate ideas. Nobody should be cut off talking and if a point is not clear it might even be worthwhile getting a translation or colleague to help express each opinion.

6 No shifting goalposts

Many meetings start on one topic and shift to another, it’s up to the brainstorm lead to stop that, make a note and say the team will discuss it another time. Everyone should enter and leave with a clear notion of what problem has been solved and any new problems or issues should require another meeting.

7 Follow-up email

Write a clear bulleted list email of what was decided and why and the action points. Be concise and clear in each point to maximize every member’s understanding of what was said. Be particularly clear on dates, times, and responsibilities.

Is it worth the effort?

This might seem a lot of steps to achieve a simple meeting, but if one creates a streamlined process, a simple system of distribution via Google Docs, Slack etc. and let everyone know why it’s happening and what they need to do

It will solve issues faster, cause less confusion and ensure your team doesn’t require multiple meetings with little progress due to multinational or multilingual confusions.