Brainstorming: alone or in a group?

One thing I’m always intrigued about is the brainstorming process. Specifically, is it better to brainstorm in a group setting, or to brainstorm alone and then bring your ideas to the group? I’ve always thought that the group concept was the way to do things. This way you can bounce ideas off of one another. However, I’ve found research suggesting the opposite.

According to studies by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Fiest, people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. Also, their study finds that the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are introverted. They highlight that solitude provides a space for focusing on the task at hand without distraction, thus more productivity and innovation. I wouldn’t have guessed that either.

Other issues with team sessions are the social pressures inherent in a group setting. “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,” said Csikszentmihalyi and Fiest.

I know we’ve all been in many, many group sessions. And, we all know how certain people take over the meetings while others remain innocent bystanders. So, if you find yourself in charge of planning a group session, how should you plan the meeting to ensure greater success?

An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests you structure the meeting to ensure social norms work for you, not against you by following these steps:

1. First, break down the group (their example uses a 20-person group) into groups of four. In any group of four, the social norm is for everyone to participate, so no one can hide without seeming uncooperative.

2. If there are five subgroups instead of one combined group, five people rather than just one are offering their ideas at any given time.

3. Put all those pushy people who feel compelled to dominate the discussion in the same group. That will prevent them from silencing the 16 people in the other groups.

But, I also agree with the one of the authors that this does not mean that there is no remaining need for group work. As Susan Cain of the New York Times states, “the problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.”

How are you most creative? With others or by yourself?


2 responses to “Brainstorming: alone or in a group?”

  1. Kristi Hansen says :

    There is a great book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking It is by Susan Cain whom you mentioned in your article. I read that book and immediately understood why I do not like the “group think” approach as much as I like doing things alone. However, I can see first hand the value of multiple points of view in a brainstorming session. As marketers, we have to realize that people have different ways of participating, and offering up different brainstorming techniques like the ones you mentioned.

  2. Margaret Yanez says :

    What a great post! I should apologize in advance as I should warn you I’m very passionate about this topic! :o)

    As a former designer for over 8 years, I have definitely read my fair share of creative brainstorming books. What the best practices are, how to conduct brainstorming events, how to ensure that everyone is being heard, how to create the most productive group setting etc. Well what I can tell you is that I don’t think there is a one size fits all for brainstorming. Creativity is so unique and what sparks it depends on the individual and their learning process and how their unique minds work. For instance, I need to do research. I get out in the field and see what our competitors are doing and then I shop like items. For example, I was designing packaging for industrial chalk and I needed to create a scale that talked about it’s weatherability. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I looked towards “like” products such as depends, tampons, and diapers. While these aren’t exactly apples to apples like items, the task is still the same. We all must communicate the amount of “weatherability” these products can take. What resulted from this was a design that today is used not only by the company I designed it for but also by all of our top competitors. Hence, creativity for me is being informed and getting mind designing by what I see in other products. For another designer however their creative brainstorming may come into play by sketching or by talking about their ideas.

    When it comes to team brainstorming, I disagree with the statement that you made that all bossy people should be put in the same team. The ideal team is made up of an assortment of personalities and thinkers. This makes sure that all areas of creative brainstorming are being tackled. If you are in a group with all like minded thinkers how creative can you all really be. You are limited by your own thoughts. However, if you are in a group by people who have different opinions than you and different views and way of doing things, this is more likely to spark creativity and allow you to build on an idea that you may not have come across if that different thinker hadn’t commented and gotten your mind thinking in a certain manner.

    I guess you can say I’m a fan of both. I think both individual brainstorming and team brainstormings have benefits. Ideally there will be enough time in a project for team members to be able to do both. In my experience, research has always been the key to coming up with the best creative solutions. After all you have to know who you are, where your marketing, what your competitors are saying and doing in order to be able to come up with a creative idea that can make an impact in the market. Easier said than done – but definitely doable.

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