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From brainstorming to brainswarming

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Emma Cowan on November 17, 2014 - 9:28 am in Advice, Featured Advice

Have you ever sat through a fruitless brainstorming session and wondered ‘whose idea was this anyway?’ The answer is Alex F. Osborne, who is accredited with defining the concept in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Well, that’s over sixty years ago – does brainstorming work and is there an alternative?

Studies have certainly questioned the validity of brainstorming, now so widely used, as an effective problem solving tool and there is a new kid on the block – brainswarming, a concept developed by a cognitive psychologist named Dr. Tony McCaffrey.

So what’s wrong with brainstorming?

In the average group brainstorming session, most of us follow a set of well-established rules (many of which were actually chartered by Osborn in his book):

  • Judgment and criticism are barred
  • Wildness of ideas is encouraged
  • Large quantity of ideas is desirable
  • Combining and building off ideas is encouraged

Underpinning these rules are several assumptions that have become deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. First, most of us believe that two heads are better than one, and that collaborating as a group allows us to bounce ideas off one another. Second, we presume that if you ban criticism within these groups, it will encourage greater creativity because people won’t fear judgment for spouting unpolished, crazy ideas.

Unfortunately, numerous studies (including ones conducted by Osborn himself) show us that almost none of these long-revered brainstorming rules lead to a greater quantity or quality of ideas.

In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, professor Keith Sawyer  conducted by Osborn in 1958. Male students were broken into groups and given several creative puzzles to solve. As a control, Osborn asked the same number of students to work on the puzzles by themselves. The students working alone came up with two times as many solutions as the groups did, and the solo students’ solutions were rated as more “feasible” and “effective” by an independent panel of judges.

What could the basis of this finding be and how does it relate to traditional brainstorming? Think back to your last brainstorming session. Is is possible that, by and large, the majority of the ideas came from the more extroverted members of the team? Brainstorming sessions tend to exclude the potential contributions of an entire population of the problem-solvers who happen to be more introverted.

Again thinking back to a recent brainstorming session, did you notice that, instead of ‘thinking outside the box’ participants tended to rehash, reword and build off existing, or dominant ideas? We covered this concept back in April when we explored cognitive biases , namely confirmation bias, the bangwagon effect and functional fixedness. In an open group situation all of these biases will come to the fore, effectively stultifying the creativity of the group. Indeed, studies have shown that many participants of a brainstorming session either consciously or subconsciously feel pressured to go along with the dominant idea or pattern of thinking.

Critical fix

One way to optimise your brainstorming is to ignore the traditional limit on criticism and open your session up to a little healthy debate. Charlan Nemeth, a Berkeley professor, found in a series of studies in 2003 that criticism can enhance the quality and quantity of viable creative ideas.

Nemeth asked a team of students to come up with solutions to a problem without criticising one another, and asked another group to brainstorm freely but also be willing to critique one another. The team that was encouraged to scrutinise came up with twenty per cent more creative ideas than the others did.

You may fear that conflict is bad for morale, but it turns out that an environment of light dissent can spark greater engagement with other’s viewpoints, and forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own ideas. In the right environment, opposition can lead to greater ingenuity. It is, of course, important to lay a respectful groundwork: all criticism should be constructive and debates should never get personal.

Brainswarming – a new approach

For those looking to steer clear of dispute, Dr. Tony McCaffrey has proposed another, more cooperative solution. McCaffrey, who has spent years studying human creativity, aptly observed in the Harvard Business Review that brainstorming “doesn’t work because sharing ideas one at a time, by talking no less, is incredibly inefficient.” So he poses this question: “Why do we need to talk in the first place?”

While the traditional brainstorming has always involved a room full of collaborators blurting out ideas, McCaffrey proposes a more silent approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. You start brainswarming by placing a goal or problem at the top of a white board, then listing the resources available to meet these problems at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end.

McCaffrey has found that natural ‘top-down’ thinkers will begin refining the goal, while ‘bottom-up’ thinkers will either add more resources or analyse how resources can be used to solve problems. The magic happens in the middle, where these two factions connect. To get a more visual demonstration of brainswarming, watch the video here.

In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, many companies continue to brainstorm solutions in crowded conference rooms, filling up white boards with sticky notes and mind-mapping trees. While traditional brainstorming methods are great for producing a lot of ideas, it’s time to start shifting your focus to methods that foster better and more useful ones.

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