Group brainstorming is inefficient and smothers creativity, suggests a recent study conducted at Texas A&M University. This might come as a shock to copywriters, designers, developers, and other creative types, who long for and religiously take part in caffeine-powered idea-generating sessions.
The study, published in the April 2010 issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggests that group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or option, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, and eventually leading to a conformity of ideas.
“Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners,” explains lead researcher Nicholas Kohn. “Thus, you potentially become less creative.”
The study comprised several experiments in which researchers asked students — both in groups and individually — to produce new ideas on how to improve the university. The findings: students working in groups generated fewer ideas than their solitary peers.
Plus, when researchers inspected the ideas, it was determined the groups put forth and considered fewer suggestions. This is because participants involved in group brainstorming sessions conform their thinking to others’ initial ideas, thus ‘trapping’ their minds.
In another study, Kohn gave engineering students blueprints of a basic vehicle, and asked them to design a “different” vehicle that served the same function — to move from point A to B. Despite the emphasis to produce a different blueprint, the students became fixated on the original and came up with nearly the same design.
So What Does the Study Suggest?
The study concluded if you’re looking for unique solutions, or want to come up with many ideas, having people first work on their own could produce stronger results. So it might be beneficial to have copywriters, designers, developers and others share their respective ideas after they’ve had adequate time to work independently.
Once the individuals form their ideas (check out this idea generation drill), then it’s probably highly beneficial to introduce them to a group setting. The reason? Fixation helps people identify and refine good ideas.
Still determined to conduct team brainstorming sessions? If so, the researchers state members of the group need to be aware of the fixation phenomenon, and take steps to prevent conformity. They state this will lead to a “more vibrant, fresh discussion and a wider range” of possible solutions.
It’s worth noting group brainstorming is not all about ideas. There’s also the social aspect, which can be fun and bring co-workers together and improve team performance. For that reason, our web copywriters will continue to apply the classic team brainstorming technique (not to mention the company-sponsored lattes).
Brainstorming gained popularity partly thanks to U.S. advertising executive Alex Osborn, who promoted the practice in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Famously quoted as saying, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one,” Osborne suggested a relaxed, supportive environment would help collective minds reach creative capacity.
Osborn put forth four basic rules in brainstorming, to reduce social inhibitions, fuel idea generation, and boost overall creativity:
Criticism is reserved for the process’ evaluation stage to allow participants to comfortably generate different ideas.
Welcome Unusual Ideas
Unusual ideas are encouraged as it’s typically easier to tone down a “wild idea” than dress up a dull idea.
The more ideas generated, the greater the odds of producing a radical and effective solution.
Combine and Improve Ideas
Not only are a variety of ideas desired, but also ways to combine them to make them better.
Looking for inspiration? Check out Breaking Barriers on the Web.