Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bad Meetings: Brainstorming

We've probably all been in a strategy session where we're advised to relax our minds and let a stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas emerge while someone writes this group product on a whiteboard. According to this "The Brainstorming Myth" in Business Strategy Review, that technique is ineffective. The abstract reads:
Research shows unequivocally that brainstorming groups produce fewer and poorer quality ideas than the same number of individuals working alone. Yet firms continue to use brainstorming as a technique for generating ideas. This continuing use of an ineffective technique is interesting psychologically. From a practical viewpoint, understanding why brainstorming is usually ineffective, and why people still do it, gives a basis for suggesting how managers can improve the way they use it.
I didn't pay $50 to read the whole article, but I did find a review of it on PSYBLOG here. The article notes that although brainstorming is supposed to foster creativity, "experiment after experiment has shown that people in brainstorming sessions produce fewer and lower quality ideas than those working alone." Three problems are cited:
  • Slacking off, letting the "rest of the group" do the work
  • Being afraid of being evaluated on the quality of one's ideas
  • Not being able to get one's ideas written down because others are talking
The real point is to see what can be done to improve the process. One answer is to use technology. The method suggested in the review article is similar to what I've been using lately. Rather than having an idea meeting I just email the group a link to an Etherpad document (screenshot below).
Etherpad is free for a public pad--not appropriate for sensitive documents, but very handy for everything else, and you can buy private access if you want. The pad excerpted above was a project list for the Dean's Council I created in order to allow us to assign ownership of tasks and set due dates. The different colors are different authors. This isn't precisely brainstorming, but it's similar. This technique is particularly suited for online brainstorming, however, because multiple people can be logged in at the same time. Because output is color-coded by participant, it's less easy to be present and not say anything (social pressure works for you). Also, you can revise, amend, or delete your ideas on the fly; you're not dependent on someone else to write them down for. Finally, all this happens in real time, with multiple people editing the document simultaneously. It's a very dynamic feeling to see a bunch of busy editors adding, revising, and commenting on each other's work. There's a sidebar chat window for the latter. Authors are identified in a color-coded index:

I think it's important to set a meeting time initially, rather than trying this asynchronously. I can't prove that scientifically, but it's certainly more fun to work when others are obviously busy with the task and you have a chance to chat with them about it. To keep track of my Etherpad conversations and other documents and links I use a mind map to organize and share the information (Mindmeister is shown here. The little arrows are hyperlinks, some to Etherpad docs):

On the other hand, meetings ARE good at killing bad ideas, according to the article.
[I]t emerges that groups do have a natural talent, which is the evaluation of ideas, rather than their creation. The conclusion of the psychological literature, therefore, is that people should be encouraged to generate ideas on their own and meetings should be used to evaluate these ideas.
Since an evolutionary approach to problem solving depends on both the creation of lots of good ideas and then the ruthless selection of only the best, this nicely complements the online brainstorming idea. An additional benefit is that the process of group decision-making bonds the group to the outcome by making it a social affair. This feeling of involvement (I'm interpolating here) is good for carrying forward the decision, especially if it has political implications. And in a university, what decisions don't have political implications?

For more about meetings, see my posts: Creating Meeting Discipline, Meeting Salad, Managing Meeting Entropy, The Two Meeting Personalities, The Secret Life of Committees

Also of interest from PSYBLOG: 10 Rules that Govern Groups

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