Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece deriding brainstorming and suggesting that individuals alone can come up with more and better ideas than a group sitting in a room. It really bothered me to read it because I’ve put some time into studying the art of brainstorming, indeed, the art of having a productive meeting in general, and the WSJ piece was just so wrong on so many levels.
I can’t get into the WSJ site but here are snippits from the IFTF site:
“G]reat brainstorming sessions are possible, but they require the planning of a state dinner, plenty of rules, and the suspension of ego, ingratiation and political railroading. Hosts have to hope that people won’t expend creative energy trying to tell others their ideas are bad without actually telling them that — admittedly a real business skill. And they have to cross their fingers that the session won’t deteriorate into what some people call “blamestorming” or “coblabberation,” where you get nowhere or settle on something mediocre to be done with it….
[I]f you don’t carefully follow procedures, you risk wasting a lot of energy. “If you leave groups to their own devices, they’re going to do a very miserable job,” says Prof. [Paul] B. Paulus, [a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington]….
When the goal really is ideas, some companies resort to hiring facilitators. Outsiders don’t have political dogs in the fight and can, as Bill Hall learned, make people “get back in line.” The last time Mr. Hall tried to conduct a session himself on how to save his organization money, “it quickly degenerated into a worthless day,” he says.
Prof. Paulus conducted research on the number and quality of ideas of four people brainstorming together versus four people brainstorming by themselves. Typically, group brainstormers perform at about half the level they would if they brainstormed alone…. [I]f people brainstorm alone after the group brainstorming session, it can [also] be productive, he says, adding, “It’s ironic: You tap the benefits of groups alone. Everyone still presumes the best brainstorming is group brainstorming.”
David Perkins, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, warns that sometimes group sessions can result in one person’s bad idea tainting and limiting the range of others’ ideas. “The best way to get good ideas is to get people to write them down privately and then bring them in,” he says.
That’s it from the WSJ piece. My own experience is that if you craft the meeting, mix the people correctly, set rules on not interrupting and “yes, butting,” and keep the focus, brainstorming sessions can be incredibly productive.
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