The New Brainstorming: Six Principles to Redeem Group Ideation
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THE NEW BRAINSTORMING; SIX PRINCIPALS TO REDEEM GROUP IDEATION
MAY 14, 2014
By Stephanie Gioia, XPLANE Director of Consulting
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SIX PRINCIPALS TO REDEEM GROUP IDEATION
“Brainstorming” is a dirty word these days. It conjures up
images of people shouting out ideas, getting hit by unreliable
bolts of “a-ha” lightning, and touchy-feely groupthink. We
know that the original tenants of brainstorming, developed by
Alex Osborn in the 1940s, were somewhat flawed.
Social scientists and researchers can point to concepts like
free riding, groupthink, framing and anchoring as detrimental
to the creative process. Susan Cain sums it up in her article
Rise of the New Groupthink: “People in groups tend to sit
back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic
others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often
succumb to peer pressure.” It’s true. But the great thing
about all this research is it’s taught us how to do
brainstorming right – how to design group interaction for
maximum creativity and results.
“Brainstorming” is a dirty word
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When it comes to generating new ideas, here are six principles, supported by what we know from
1. Don’t let your firestarter be an anchor
Consider the difference between asking a group, “What should we buy for Greg’s birthday?” versus, “How might we make
Greg’s birthday amazing?” We call these framing questions firestarters. How a firestarter is worded (“might” vs. “should”,
open vs. limiting) makes a huge difference in how your participants view the challenge before them.
2. Individuals, first; groups, second
Never start a brainstorm by opening the floor to shout out ideas. As social creatures, participants have a cognitive bias to
anchor their thoughts relative to the first idea they hear. Start by asking participants to take a few moments by themselves
to generate as many ideas as they can.
3. Make prolific specific
When brainstorming individually, everyone slows down at a certain point – the real magic happens when participants
search beyond the initial set of ideas and dig for more. When participants begin to slow down, ask them to count up their
ideas, divide by two, and then stretch to come up with that many more.
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4. Use proper post-up form
Our tried-and-true method for sharing the ideas participants have generated individually is called a post-up. Participants
take turns sharing their ideas, each written on a separate post-it, card or piece of paper. Say each idea out loud before
posting it on a wall, limiting commentary just to clarifying questions. All ideas must be posted – no weeding out!. As you
post up, affinity map the ideas, placing them close to similar ones. Even if your idea is the same as someone else’s, post it
up – it helps the group detect patterns and trends. You may hear things like “I took a different approach” or “this doesn’t
really fit with anything up here, but…” This is a good sign! These are ideas that wouldn’t have been vocalized if you had
started with group discussion.
5. Encourage perspective-taking
The tendency at this stage is for participants to become possessive of their ideas – they’re so excited about the brilliant
things they came up with, they can’t help themselves! Head that off with an activity that requires them to build on the ideas
of others. We like to ask participants to pick a favorite idea that wasn’t theirs and build three new ideas that relate to it. The
result is magical; participants lose their ego about their own ideas and start to get excited about someone else’s.
6. Use structure to evaluate ideas
Brainstorming is not just about divergent and emergent idea generation. There are many methods for closing a brainstorm,
from dot voting to an impact/effort matrix to the NUF Test (Gamestorming outlines these and other closing exercises). A
structured activity reduces the influence of emotion and personal judgment, keeping participants focused on objective
evaluation criteria rather than arguing.
By applying these six principles to brainstorming in your organization, you’ll find you avoid the groupthink, free-riding, and
lack of critical thinking that can plague so many ideation efforts. Give it a try and let us know your results!