Brainstorming is just as the word suggests. It’s all about churning up a storm of new and fascinating ideas. Now, the question is, do you prefer brainstorming in a group? Or do you wish to be alone?
There are rather varied responses to the question. The introverts like 32-year-old Maya Kumar, an Indian expat in Dubai, need time alone to think of new ideas. “I don’t do well in groups,” she confesses. “People talking together confuses me more, and I lose track of my thoughts,” she says. On the other hand, Ananda Shakespeare, founder and CEO, Shakespeare Communications, a Dubai-based public relations platform, vouches for brainstorming. “It’s great. It helps develop ideas to execution,” she says.
Discussing how it works at her workplace, she says, “We find group brainstorming beneficial. It depends on the context, but we might have one team member present ideas to the team and then we develop those ideas or re-angle them to make them stronger. This is the beauty of creativity, each individual brings a different perspective to the table,” she adds.
Brainstorming shows the beauty of creativity. It helps develop ideas to execution. Each individual brings a different perspective to the table.
Everyone has their own opinions and way of working. However, research in the past few decades has its own reasoning.
What research says
The idea of brainstorming isn’t novel by any means; it was introduced in 1953 by British creative theorist and businessman Alex Osborn. He argued that the idea behind brainstorming, was to come up with as many ideas as possible, give weight to the unusual ideas, and then streamline the ideas that people came up with. It was based on the understanding that others have a motivating impact on a person’s performance, and that quantity, leads to quality. Osborn argued that group brainstorming enhances productivity by 50 per cent, as compared to people working on their own.
However, research in the past few decades has been steadily dismantling this theory. In 2010, an American research study titled Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration, found interesting patterns. The study noted that individuals generate a higher number of original ideas, when they don’t interact with each other.
There are several reasons why group brainstorming doesn’t work, according to the study:
Fear of criticism
People tend to suppress their own creative ideas as they fear others would judge them negatively. According to the scientists, when they told groups during experiments that their ideas would be judged by peers, the participants came up with a fewer ideas than the other group that was to be evaluated by judges.
The possibility of someone else voicing their ideas
People have a tendency to forget their own ideas, before they can even voice them, as the study showed. The research observed that the train of thought of some participants got derailed, while listening to others. The researchers proved this by separating people into rooms where they would speak their ideas into a microphone, when lights indicated it was their turn. In some of the rooms, the participants could hear the others, and in some rooms, they couldn’t.
This showed the loss of creativity, as people being required to wait to give ideas led to them submitting fewer ideas. Moreover, when people do contribute ideas at will, it’s the more outgoing ones who dominate the conversation, while the quiet ones hold back.
Feasibility vs originality
It’s a human tendency. We want to go for what’s convenient, rather than opt for what might take some effort. People weigh feasible against what is actually original in a group. And the most feasible idea might not be particularly novel, either.
People tend to slack off in group discussions
Forty-two year old Lalitha Iyengar, a Abu Dhabi-based corporate communications professional and leadership coach feels that many voices get lost in group discussions. Calling it just “noise”, the Indian expat looks back at her own experience and says, “With only a few talking, others just sit back, relax and then nod, later claiming credit,” she says. “Sometimes the discussions just go into irrelevant tangents, wasting everyone’s time as nothing concrete comes out of it,” she says. Working away from noise and discussion has helped her more, she adds.
How to have a healthy group brainstorming session
Nevertheless, the benefits of group brainstorming cannot be discounted completely. It’s quite the double-edged sword.
People do tend to feed off each other’s energy. Clinical psychologist Melissa Alves from the German Neuroscience Center says, “In a group setting, people can benefit from the group momentum and build up on each other’s ideas. They can also benefit from immediate feedback and create collectively.” In other words, it depends on the people, themselves and their personalities, as well as the leader organising the discussion.
In order to have a healthy, productive brainstorming session, several factors need to be taken into account. In her book Leading Creative Teams, author and leadership coach Eleazer Hernandez outlines some essential rules. As she notes, simply “having bodies in chairs” does not make for a good session. For starters, there should be a sense of respect among the participants. There are no bad ideas; no one should be judged. Moreover, no one should be allowed to dominate. If you notice someone who is unwilling to participate, they need to be encouraged to share their opinions.
In a group setting, people can benefit from the group momentum and build up on each other’s ideas. They can also benefit from immediate feedback and create collectively.
Author, speaker and story strategist Jyoti Guptara and Claire Roper-Browning, regional Director for Marketing, Recruitment at Heriot-Watt University Dubai offers suggestions:
• Get in the right frame of mind before you start. Involve your body, mind, and emotions. Disengage from whatever you were just working on and from business as usual.
•Make sure that the question has been clearly understood
•Reevaluate the number of participants, advises Browning. Too few and you risk not having adequate discussion, and too many and you may find that not everyone is able to participate.
• To avoid strong individuals dominating and make space for divergent thinking, you can run multiple brainstorm sessions simultaneously with different groups then compare results.
•Rhythm is key. Guptara suggests engaging with a question for a few minutes then disengage and you wander. You can vary between concrete and abstract, such as asking vague or more nuanced questions.
•Every organisation has introverts, who struggle to speak up or hold back, says Roper. To make brainstorming more inclusive and productive, leaders could consider anonymous brainstorming or voting for ideas.
It's all about the ‘vibe’ of the room
The answer to whether brainstorming alone in a group is beneficial isn’t straightforward, clearly. It has more nuances than we think, and is deeply linked to the people themselves. In short, it cannot be categorically said one is better than the other. There are merits and demerits to both.
It’s all about the vibe of the room, says Laila Yaseen Al Horani, a Jordanian art director based in Dubai. “Ideas and sometimes realisations often don't emerge in my mind, until I start expressing myself and my thoughts out loud to someone,” she says. She can see sentences and words forming as she speaks. “It’s helped me to solve problems really quickly,” she adds. However, the times when brainstorming in a group hasn’t really worked, is when people get entangled in a power game, rather than actually work. “That’s when I stop contributing, and go to work alone,” she adds.
Guptara, who has brainstormed and co-written three books with his brother, says, “It depends on the people, personalities, as well as the task.” Citing advantages of brainstorming, he says, “You don’t get distracted and feed off each other’s energy. This external source can instigate new trains of thought, and you get immediate feedback from someone who was part of the process,” he says.
Group brainstorming depends on the people, personalities as well as the task. You don’t get distracted and feed off each other’s energy. This external source can instigate new trains of thought, and you get immediate feedback from someone who was part of the process...
A combined approach
Clinical psychologist Alves offers a midway between both the polarising opinions. She acknowledges that in a group setting some of the participants feel inhibited in their full potential, owing to social pressure and fear of being judged.
On the other hand, in an individual setting, one can explore without any societal pressure and come up with ideas that are truly original. “They can also produce ideas that are deeper and more related to personal experience, without fear of criticism,” she says. In order to use the full creative potential of the participants, one could use a combined approach that begins with individual research, and then meet in a group setting. This has a chance of offering the best results.