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Brainstorming is Bollocks!

Brainstorming – it’s a popular creativity technique that many (if not all) of us have used. And we tend to use brainstorming because it’s the best way to get the most out of a team when generating ideas, right? To throw a spanner in the works, at Inventium we like to say that brainstorming is bollocks. Yes, you definitely read that right and it might sound a bit harsh, but it’s actually been scientifically proven!

A study was conducted at Harvard that compared the output of two groups of people when doing an idea generation task. The first group used traditional brainstorming for 20 minutes to generate solutions to a problem. The second group used their 20 minutes very differently. For the first 5 minutes they worked on the problem alone. After this time was up, they shifted into group mode where participants shared and built on each other’s ideas. The group then shifted back into individual mode for another 5 minutes, before using the last 5 minutes to remerged and share their ideas again.

The results of this research was fascinating (and quite unexpected!) The research showed that the group that shifted from individual to group mode produced significantly more ideas as well as significantly more diverse ideas than the traditional brainstormers.

So why does this shifting between individual and group mode work so much better than traditional brainstorming? This is because brainstorming is fundamentally flawed in 2 ways. The first is that to perform well in traditional brainstorming sessions, you need to be highly extraverted (or in other words, be able to think and speak at the same time!) The proportion of these highly extraverted people in the population is only 10%, and so brainstorming will only get the best out of this small part of the population. By getting everyone in the group to work alone and then share their ideas, you can make sure that the other 90% of people are being heard.

The second reason brainstorming is fundamentally flawed is because of group think. Group think is when someone suggests an idea and other members of the group are influenced by this idea and prematurely converge their thinking. This happens so commonly with brainstorming – I can’t even remember how many times I’ve gone into a brainstorming session to leave an hour later having only discussed one idea! By giving people time to work alone before sharing, you can make sure that you avoid this kind of convergent thinking.

At Inventium, we’ve decided to draw on this research and develop a tool that helps you get the most out of group work. And you’ve probably guessed by now that this tool is called Shifting. This tool is really easy to implement and can be used with any kind of group work (not just idea generation). To conduct Shifting just do the following:

1.  Instruct your group to work on the problem/task alone for 5 to 10 minutes or until you see the pens start to slow.
2.  Then bring the group together and get people to share their ideas one-by-one around the table and build on each other’s ideas. This should take between 20 and 40 minutes.
3.  Next, shift back into individual mode and get people to build on the shared ideas alone for 5 to 10 minutes or until you see the pens start to slow again.
4.  And lastly, bring the group back together and repeat Step 2.

I’d love to hear your experiences, comments, or questions about this. Feel free to drop me a line at [email protected] or on twitter @StephThoo