The Yin and Yang of Brainstorming

May 7, 2019 by Urška Miklič

It was three years ago when by browsing through TED talks I came across one of my all-time favorites The power of introverts, by Susan Cain. Although she didn’t talk about brainstorming specifically, the views she presented about how being social and outgoing are the attributes that our society values above all really resonated with me. In her talk on how we should learn to appreciate and listen to introverts more, she also touches upon what seems to be almost an obsession for group work, which is what brainstorming often turns out to be. This part in particular got me thinking about my own experience with the so-called brainstorming sessions during my career.

So perhaps it’s best to just put it out there: I’m not a particularly big fan of brainstorming, meaning the classic definition of it: a group discussion to produce ideas or solve problems. Which might be somewhat of a problem if your career so far spans from a multinational corporation to one very international Slovene company, a digital marketing agency and a knowledge hub, all of them heavily using this process in their daily work. Not to mention the core of the CEF itself – sharing knowledge at workshops, seminars, conferences… Events that incorporate sessions requiring participants to brainstorm about an issue or a task.

But what if you’re simply someone for whom brainstorming just isn’t his or her cup of tea? What if you’re someone who goes into a bit of a shut-down mode when being asked to form a group, a lot of times with people you just met an hour ago, and come up with the most marvelous ideas right there and then? It’s not even because of some deep rooted social fear or anxiety. It’s simply because you best work when you have some time to think things through. On your own, without the pressure to produce instant greatness. When it comes to me – sitting in a circle, looking at the other group members – I’ll mostly come up with a big nothing. Although I’ve learned to adjust to some extent over all these years.

Apparently, I get distracted: by the person leading the session, the conversations in the neighboring group and the pressure (imaginary or not) of other members waiting for me to contribute. I usually also can’t just switch from one thing to another. One minute I’m very focused on a topic being presented, the next I’m asked to brainstorm with others. But if it’s a task given to us to solve it individually, I can be far more productive. And I dare to assume there are more people like me out there.

There’s no denying that many times brainstorming sessions definitely work and can spark conversations that result in significant improvements. I also realize that some people absolutely thrive at brainstorming and come up with the most amazing ideas in such an environment. There are also times where it’s a must: for example, when a product or idea development is stuck in a certain phase, asking a group of people to share their ideas could be a life-saver. But the danger lies in the fact, as also pointed out by Susan Cain, that too many times we simply do not get the best ideas. Instead, we often only get the “loudest” ones. Because the very concept of brainstorming is designed for people, who are more on the extroverted part of the spectrum, enjoy the spotlight, are spontaneous and thrive on outside stimulations. It’s also been observed in numerous researches there are many fundamental flaws with brainstorming:

  • When placed in a group, we think alike
  • We see what we expect to see
  • It produces the rise of the lowest common denominator
  • The number of ideas per person declines as group size increases
  • People are making less of an effort than they would alone

Therefore, it is perhaps worth spending some time thinking of other ways to gather ideas, either at internal meetings or when organizing learning events. This way you gather them also from the people who otherwise give the appearance of being completely passive.

It’s also very evident that the facilitators of CEF events already incorporate many of the possible alternatives, such as brainwriting, brainwalking, idea-building and passive brainstorming, to name a few. It is very encouraging and empowering to see this trend rising.

Although it’s impossible to design learning events or internal trainings that would completely meet the expectations of every single participant, we can still do our best to come up with the right balance of idea-gathering processes. So that all of those similar to me, usually just trying to weather through the brainstorming sessions, can still contribute to the team and are given the chance to produce ideas in their own (quiet) ways.

 

Sources:
- The power of introverts, Susan Cain
- 11 Ways to Get the Best Brainstorming Results, Creativity at Work
- Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time, Harvard Business Review
- Why Brainstorming Doesn't Work (and What to Do Instead), Inc.
- Why Group Brainstorming Doesn't Work, Trello