Group think limits brainstorming benefits
In an article:
“Collaborative fixation: Effects of others’ ideas on brainstorming” by: Nicholas W. Kohn, Steven M. Smith in Applied Cognitive Psychology (29 March 2010) an insight into the real effectiveness of brainstorming is given.
The abstract summarizes the thinking very well:
Three experiments examined whether or not fixation effects occur in brainstorming as a function of receiving ideas from others. Exchanging ideas in a group reduced the number of domains of ideas that were explored by participants. Additionally, ideas given by brainstormers conformed to ideas suggested by other participants. Temporal analyses showed how the quantity, variety and novelty of ideas fluctuate over the course of a brainstorming session. Taking a break modulated the natural decline over time in the quantity and variety of ideas. Although fixation was observed in brainstorming in terms of conformity and restriction of the breadth of ideas, it did not influence the number of ideas generated in these experiments. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Researchers from A&M University (Texas) carried out a number of experiments looking into the value of brainstorming.
What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a commonly used way for groups to develop fresh ideas and thoughts on a problem or project. As a technique it is often used by manager, team leaders and consultants working with groups.
In one, individual students and groups were asked to come up with as many ideas as they could on how to improve the university. The researchers used an Instant Messenger platform as the electronic discussion format when conducting the experiments, which comprised groups of two, three, and four people.
The 160 participants (students on an introductory to psychology course) were randomly assigned to groups and provided with instructions on brainstorming as well as a modified version of Osborn’s (1957) brainstorming rules:
- Criticism is ruled out,
- Freewheeling is welcomed,
- Quantity is wanted,
- Combination and improvement are sought and
- Stay focused on the task.
This showed that four individuals generated up to 44 per cent more ideas and covered a more diverse range of topics than in a group together.
Demonstrated that when in groups, the students ideas had a tendency to mirror the thoughts of others.
The “up side” of the group work, was that the ideas they did look at they did in greater depth than the individuals.
Showed an “incubation interval” such as a tea break can get creative juices flowing again.
Conclusions from the Research
In this article the researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, leading eventually to a conformity of ideas. This other research studies have demonstrated that taking a break can reduce the natural decline in quantity, quantity and breadth of ideas, and encourage new thinking approaches. To the brain its like starting again.
The authors said “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners.” and “Thus, you potentially become less creative.”
Research showed that Real Groups (real teams working together) perform differently from Nominal Groups (pooled performance of the same individuals working individually). By combining the performance of both methodologies performance and thus idea generation could be enhanced. Real groups generated a more limited variety of ideas but that real groups go deeper into categories than nominal groups, particularly in later part of the session.
Application – A new Brainstorming Process
Knowing this information is one thing, but does this mean the end of brainstorming as we know it? Well no, what it means is that we need to adapt our process slightly to get the most out.
If ideas are to be shared in a group brainstorming session, the group needs to be aware of this fixation phenomenon and take steps to prevent idea conformity. Being aware of this can help lead to a fresh, more vibrant producing a wider range of possible options/ outputs.
For example the Nosirrom (2010) GHGHG approach:
- Give individuals 20 minutes to individually brainstorm the issue/ problem/ situation
- Have a break, change focus & re-energize
- Group build on the collective ideas (5-10 min to understand the material – then 10-20 minutes of brainstorming)
- Have a break, change focus & re-energize
- Group restart with the collective content (10-20 minutes)
The research highlighted that productivity and quality was increased in the last 5 minutes of the sessions. No indication was given as to the optimum length of the breaks, although the breaks used were 5 minutes in duration and in that time participants were instructed to complete “mazes”