5 science-backed tips on better brainstorming

In a previous post by Adam McKibbin, we discussed some tips on how to improve your team brainstorming sessions. He wrote: “I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in energizing brainstorming sessions that led to important change, but I’ve also had the pain of trudging through a poorly organized brainstorm that was DOA, and the frustration of the incredible-seeming brainstorm that never translated to any real action.”

How do you avoid the latter sessions and get more out of your team’s brainpower? By breaking away from traditional brainstorming.

Why is traditional brainstorming broken?

Traditional brainstorming –  i.e. your team sits down and generates ideas together – is usually ineffective. According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, groups tend to foster too much conformity, since being a “team player” is highly valued.

Furthermore, the dynamics of group behavior during brainstorming sessions reveal that people have to wait for their turn to speak, and, as a result, forget their ideas or brush them aside altogether.

So rather than sit in a conference room and “bounce ideas” on the fly, here’s what you can do instead:

#1 – Have everyone list their ideas before the meeting

In traditional brainstorming, your team members take turns sharing ideas, often bringing them up one at a time. Per the European Journal of Social Psychology, this leads to ideas being forgotten or members feeling that their ideas are no longer relevant.

The solution? Get your team to individually list their ideas and then bring them to the meeting. This avoids “verbal traffic jams” where speakers have to withhold ideas until it’s their turn to speak. The same research shows that brainstorming individually also increases the number of ideas brought to the table.

#2 – Publicly keep track of the number of ideas each person contributes

Another common problem with traditional team brainstorming is that some team members will stay in the background, not contributing their share of ideas; this is known as “social loafing.” When this happens, others will be forced to work harder to compensate. Anybody who’s ever collaborated with a group has experienced this phenomenon.

A recent study from Ohio State University showed that posting performance encourages social comparisons and helps individuals perform better when working with a group. This means that one way to avoid social loafing is to keep track of how many ideas each person contributes, and to even share this number with the rest of the group. When people know that their input is being monitored, they tend to be more active in carrying their share of the workload.

This ensures that every member of the group actually contributes to the brainstorming session.

#3 – Break down each problem into smaller components

Another technique that might help improve your brainstorming sessions is to break down larger problems or goals into smaller key components (Furnham, 2000).

When people tackle problems as components, it is easier to focus attention to specific problem areas and generate possible solutions without feeling overwhelmed by the task. Better yet, assign different components to different smaller brainstorming teams, then bring them together for a final brainstorming session for evaluation.

#4 – Diminish groupthink through breaks and dissent

Some studies show that dissent in groups, especially coming from those in a minority position, can help a group generate more innovative ideas – but it only works if all members have high participation in the discussion. A bit of dissent can also help improve information-sharing within a group.

A University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University study demonstrated that allowing for a break during group brainstorming helped increase both the variety and quality of ideas, preventing conformity.

#5 – Try brainstorming electronically

When we previously discussed unusual meeting styles, we mentioned “silent meetings” – these are meetings that take place electronically through instant messaging. Participants can be in the same room together or meeting remotely.

This approach has been shown to work well for brainstorming, especially for large groups. First of all, it prevents “production blocking” (some members inhibiting the contribution of others). Plus, it helps participants less apprehensive to share their ideas.

Does everyone have a voice?

As you can see from the above tips, hearing from every member of the team is key. By getting everyone’s input, encouraging differing ideas, and being mindful of groupthink, we’ll be getting much more than just a storm of ideas – we’ll get a hurricane of innovation and creativity.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.