There is an argument voiced numerous times by prominent people, some notable, some notorious, that creativity and productivity are impacted when workers work at home alone rather than together in an office environment. I have heard the same argument from a close colleague, for whom I have the deepest respect, even though two of the major advances in the creation of our product came from his ideas when he was away from the office on a beach or in the bush. So this got me thinking about how well the process works when people are together attempting to generate ideas through collaborative exercises like brainstorming. After all, assembling a group of people in the same place at the same time is expensive in lost productivity on regular tasks and in the time and cost for the attendees who have to travel to the meeting place. I found a number of articles that contradict the argument for group creativity, especially traditional brainstorming, and highlight specific issues like social loafing, conformity, production blocking and regression to the mean. In their “Beyond Productivity Loss” paper, Stroebe, Nijstad and Rietzschel identified that “Production blocking (having to take turns to express ideas) was identified as the major cause of productivity loss because it led to cognitive interference.” Their research “indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.”
In his Harvard Business Review article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, gives two main reasons why organisations persist with brainstorming even though, as he puts it – “it is one more placebo in the talent management cabinet, believed to work in spite of the clear absence of evidence.” The first relates to the specialisation of employees where it is felt necessary to assemble people with different expertise to solve a problem. The second is the belief that the process is more democratic and can lead to better buy-in.
In her article, Teresa Torres, Product discovery coach, refers to Leigh Thompson, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who concludes that:
“Individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas – whereas groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.”
Clearly this is satisfactory if the goal of the meeting is to agree solutions that are practical and achievable, but the risk is that more unconventional but potentially valuable ideas may be dismissed.
Given the discouraging reviews, it is reassuring to find that there are credible solutions to the group creativity problems, although the first which is to use a trained facilitator carries extra cost if those skills are not available in the company. Nevertheless, Torres says “that facilitated brainstorming groups do match the performance of individuals working on their own.” The second solution is one proposed by Thompson, which is to do brainwriting instead; it has the following steps, which may be more time-consuming but are more likely to catch the original ideas:
- Have each participant write his or her ideas down silently.
- After ideas have been captured, share ideas in a round-robin fashion.
- Do multiple sessions of writing, followed by sharing, so that people have a chance to build on one another’s ideas.”
What was the result of the individual original ideas from the beach and the bush? This is Tensense which collects organisational experience (OX) data and analyses it in real-time using our proprietary Organisational SensemakingTM system. You can find out more in this short video here.