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Better group brainstorms: don't look for ideas – look for questions

Have you ever had to sit through one of those group brainstorming meetings where you feel you're losing the will to live?

You know the kind – where a group of people are asked to get together in a room and come up with lots of ideas, then narrow them down to the best one.

Chances are, the loudest people in the room will dominate the discussion and you'll leave with a so-so idea or two ... and a feeling you've barely scratched the surface and much better ideas are out there somewhere.

There's a good reason – it's not how the creative process works.

The best ideas tend to come to you when you're least expecting it – and they're the result of time spent investigating and ruminating.

The term "brainstorming" was first used by an advertising executive, Alex F. Osborn, who described the way he introduced group thinking to his company in his 1953 book Applied Imagination, Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.

He claimed his group brainstorm sessions enhanced idea generation by 50% compared with individuals working on their own.

But much research since then has challenged this and suggested that group brainstorming can actually harm creative performance – that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they're not interacting with others.

There's no doubt it's useful to get different heads together when you're tackling a problem or trying to generate fresh thinking. The power of association means one person's thought sparks a new thought of your own.

And working as a team means you should have the benefit of different perspectives, so you can look at a problem from many different angles.

But in practice most brainstorm sessions fail because the group moves straight to trying to have ideas without enough preparation.

The participants don't have the information or insights you need to fuel creativity thinking.

Or the question they're tackling is too vague, complex or just the wrong question.

Rather than brainstorming for ideas – sitting round a table hoping inspiration will strike – it can be far better to use group sessions to "brainstorm" for different questions to ask.

Reframe the problem, dig deeper, and challenge assumptions.

Then, armed with better questions, go off individually and dig as deep as you can for information and insights that might lead you to the answers.

Hal Gregerson, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, describes brainstorming for questions in this article from the Harvard Business Review.

He says: "Underlying the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel—even transformative—insights."

What's more ... "Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory. "

Try to invite a couple of "outsiders" – people who aren't involved in the project, who don't have a vested interest and who may have a different perspective.

They're more likely to ask the obvious questions that can challenge assumptions, or the difficult questions that some people might be avoiding.

Of course all this takes time and it can feel uncomfortable living with questions for too long without answers, especially if you’re on a tight deadline.

But if you're curious about the problem, rather than quick to propose the solution, you'll tend to get to a much better answer.


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