Meeting Meltdown: Why Group Brainstorming Gets Hindered and What You Can Do About It

November 12, 2015 10:45 pm

Have any of you noticed that brainstorming has earned a pretty bad reputation?

Studies suggest the anecdotal experiences clients have shared around bad brainstorming sessions are quite widespread – we’re just not seeing the kinds of creative output we hope for. According to the experts (Diehl and Stroebe, 1987) the most common problems facing brainstorming fall into three categories:

  1. Judgement – fear of being judged by members of the group, judging too soon, social judgement and substantive judgement, etc.
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  2. “Production blocking” when the process itself is the problem (one person recording ideas, one person talking at a time, thus not a “free flow” of ideas)
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  3. Social loafing or matching of effort (A.K.A. people work to the lowest common denominator effect)

It’s no wonder that many of us have moved away from traditional brainstorming and towards individual contributions.  While nominal group techniques definitely have their place, sometimes we’re looking for the feeling of collaboration and enhanced team understanding that comes more readily from a traditional brainstorming session. If so, don’t worry – you can still yield great results if you follow some of these brainstorming solutions:

  1. Offner, Kramer, and Winter (1996) found that having a trained facilitator who managed group interaction and recorded ideas significantly enhanced idea production. A facilitated brainstorming session matches the performance of nominal groups and has the added benefit of team building and interactivity. So, given you’re reading this article, your meeting participants already have a better than average chance of a great brainstorming session.
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  2. A great ‘setting of context’ – many brainstorming sessions fail because we don’t start with a clear question or problem. If you can paint a picture of the issue or the end state to situate participants, you’ll find less warm-up time is required before ideas start percolating. This can be as simple as a statement starting with “imagine…” or “picture our team members…” or “it’s 6 months from now and we’ve successfully...”.
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  3. Norms – you can sidestep the fear of judgement by building and refereeing rules of engagement. While it’s common to jump to judging ideas during the brainstorming phase, this behaviour needs to be heavily policed or else you’ll shut down people who worry about being judged. Having guidelines like ‘during brainstorming ALL ideas are acceptable’ or ‘no naysaying during brainstorming’ helps to avoid critiquing some ideas over others.
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  4. A scribe – whether you ask someone to join you in scribing to speed up the process (two pens are much faster than one), or enlist some technology to record ideas, making sure that the group doesn’t lose momentum while you try to keep up at the flip chart can go a long way in keeping the ideas flying.  Production blocking doesn’t have to sink your next idea discussion.

If you still find yourself leading a less-than-inspired brainstorming session, try one of these simple techniques:

    • Change perspective (ask how a client, investor, 5 year-old, etc. would approach the problem)
    • Change of scenery (especially if bad meetings are associated with your usual meeting room)
    • Change of pace (take a break, or make the session itself fun)
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