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An end to brainstorming? Why brainstorming sessions could be damaging your company’s success!

  How long have we been told to conduct brainstorming sessions with our teams as a catalyst for new ideas and organizational change? Too long. Psychologists studying the behavior of those in brainstorming sessions have found that traditional methods can actually HURT the creative process rather than help it. (Dean, 2009)

According to business psychologist Adrian Furnham (2000), there are three areas where brainstorming sessions can be a negative for your team:

  • Social Loafing
  • Evaluation Apprehension
  • Production Blocking

Social loafing, a common trait found in group environments, is amplified as the size of the group increases. Many people, either consciously or sub-consciously, slack off or lose interest when there is less attention paid to them in a group setting. This is a result of social behaviors that we may not even realize that we’re following. We instinctively work less if someone else nearby to us isn’t working as hard. Larger group environments also allow for more anonymity, making it easier to be hidden among the crowd. Since active engagement and dialogue are less possible in larger groups, it’s common for such group members to lose interest and motivation in these settings.

Even though evaluations are not generally part of brainstorming sessions, participants often believe that they are being unofficially evaluated, leading to a psychological trait called Evaluation Apprehension. Group members intuitively fear that their suggestions will be considered foolish or bad– either by the leader or the group itself, and as a result they speak up less often.

Production blocking happens when group members are waiting for others to finish expressing their thoughts. Often, the person with the idea who is waiting for their turn forgets what they were going to say, dismisses the idea, or they decide that their idea is no longer relevant as the conversation evolves. How many times has that happened to you during a brainstorming session?

Ever since I was young, I observed that people operated differently in groups. While I personally learned best in group settings that allowed me to actively participate in the group by asking questions, answering questions, and coming up with ideas, I noticed that many people shrunk in that environment. As an empathetic participant, I would watch others in the group, noticing the group members that wouldn’t make suggestions or ask questions unless they were called upon. Always concerned for the welfare and success of others, I would consciously limit myself in those kinds of group environments so that others had more opportunities to participate.

As I became a teacher and later a corporate trainer, I used these skills to ensure that everyone in the room was actively part of group discussions. At the same time, I was also careful not to embarrass the extra quiet ones by asking them more than they felt comfortable sharing. I did find though that some people needed a little coaxing to get them to participate at all.

Over the years, I’ve taken the Myers Briggs many times, and have developed an appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of both introverts and extroverts. What we often forget in business is that our teams are (hopefully) composed of a number of personality-types. Not everyone enjoys team thought sessions. Not everyone comes up with ideas in front of a group. Not everyone gets the chance to say everything they want to say to the group.

So how do we get ideas from others if traditional brainstorming sessions aren’t effective? Follow these 10 steps to get your team more successful, actively engaged, and part of the creative process:

  1. Map your meeting out well in advance. What are you hoping to gain from this? Why are these specific people involved? How long will it last? When will you regroup?
  2. People need to understand the goals and objectives in advance of the meeting. Let participants know well before the meeting what the purpose is, why it’s necessary, and what is the intended final outcome.
  3. Explain why THEY are an important and necessary part of this process.
  4. Set up clear expectations for what you want from them– this makes participants much more likely to understand their role and actively engage.
  5. Tell participants what to bring and set a specific amount of time for the meeting. Ask them to bring a pen, paper, and a list of ideas related to the problem or concept that you’re working on.
  6. Hold the meeting and whiteboard all of the ideas (good, bad, and everything in between).
  7. Have someone take a picture of the whiteboard and email it to everyone in the group. Let the participants know that you will reconvene in X days (a few days, a week…) to re-discuss and get new ideas that have developed since the meeting.
  8. Briefly speak to each participant individually before the next session. This gives introverts the chance to participate in environments where they are more comfortable, and allows people to ask questions as they work on new ideas.
  9. Hold the second session, discuss what has come up since the initial meeting, and work on next steps to ensure that these ideas GO SOMEWHERE. Participants that feel that their time has been wasted will be less likely to be actively engaged in future sessions.
  10. Keep all brainstorming participants in the loop through future development phases so they see the outcome of their work.

What else could you do to reduce social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking in your next meeting or brainstorming session to bring about the best ideas?