Group Brainstorming or Group BS? Leave Me Alone — I Have Creative Work to Do.

Learn more about Susan's outstanding new book on Amazon.
My personal experience with group brainstorming is not good. It usually fails.

I've always felt that the best ideas germinate outside the formal office space — on walks; in airplanes, bars and cars; during showers; and in dark bedrooms at odd hours of the morning. And more often than not, when you're alone.

Good ideas rarely come out of a conference room. When I participate in these brainstorming sessions with our Fisher Vista Creative Marketing Group this is often the case. It doesn't mean these meetings are a waste of time, because for all I know, during these sessions the seeds may be planted that allow an idea to sprout later. I know this because a great idea always surfaces — later.

So we won't stop having them — yet — but Susan Cain's outstanding new book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking", helped me understand the science behind why group brainstorming sessions usually fail.

According to Ms. Cain, group brainstorming doesn't work. In her book she talks about how legendary advertising executive Alex Osborn (the co-founder of BBDO for you advertising historians) invented the concept of brainstorming, as he believed groups produced better ideas than individuals working alone. But 40 years of research proved this wrong. Evidence from science, Cain writes, suggests businesses must be insane to use brainstorming. Studies show performance gets worse as group size increases.

But most companies aren't in the know. 

In a New York Times opinion piece, "The Rise of the New Groupthink",  Ms. Cain quotes Steve Wozniak's (co-founder of Apple Computer) advice to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me ... they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone .... I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

And yet, as Ms. Cain writes:

"The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010."

Before you get all up in arms about the countless hours you're wasting in conference rooms with bad food and bad ideas, there is hope.  According to Ms. Cain, the one exception is online brainstorming, sometimes referred to as online collaboration. Ms. Cain calls it electronic brainstorming and she says it's the one exception where large groups outperform individuals. The protection of the computer screen, Ms. Cain writes, mitigates many problems of group work.

Mark Smith, CEO & Chief Research Officer for Ventana Research, recently discussed the benefits of social collaboration in his HRmarketer guest blog post "Businesses Need to Make Social Collaboration Routine". Mark says that social collaboration can help individuals reach their full productive potential. Yet, Ventana's recent social collaboration and human capital management benchmark research found that 59 percent of companies actively prohibit the use of internal social collaboration during working hours! At the same time, 58 percent of organizations allow social media networks like LinkedIn to be used during working hours.

Buzz kill?

Change doesn't happen overnight. There was a time when employers questioned the value of giving each employee a phone at their desk. But why not give it a try? Instead of bringing everyone into a conference room for your next brainstorming session, do it online and invite more people. See what happens.

Post written by Mark Willaman, the founder and CEO of  HRmarketer, SocialEars HR and the Fisher Vista Marketing Group. Connect with Mark on LinkedIn

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