Online Brainstorms Overcome Many Problems of Traditional Brainstorms

The other day, I highlighted research showing that face-to-face brainstorming meetings are not as effective at generating ideas as quiet contemplation. It’s important to note one partial exception to that rule: online brainstorming.

E-brainstorming.
The research is very supportive of online brainstorming. With face-to-face brainstorming, the larger the group, the worse the performance, both in terms of quantity and quality. With online brainstorming, however, the bigger the group, the better the performance, according to the research.

Why? I’d say it is because online brainstorming fosters what introverts particularly need to excel, time for quiet contemplation and self-vetting. Online brainstorming – a prolonged email-based discussion, for instance – removes many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous face-to-face brainstorming sessions so many organizations adore.

First, online brainstorms remove many of the distractions inherent in face-to-face brainstorm sessions. In face-to-face brainstorming sessions, our minds are racing from irrelevant subject to irrelevant subject: “The facilitator is not as funny as he thinks he is…do people think I’m talking too little, or too much…why Snickers…bad hair day, dude…why does she always work the word “synergy” into every monologue…if I had pointy shoes like that guy, would people conclude that I’m creative…wouldn’t white boards be more environmentally sustainable than giant Post-it notes…is the facilitator on happy pills?”

When you’re back at your keyboard, those environmental distractions are removed, so you can focus on the task at hand. Sure, distractions still exist in your office, but nothing like the wild sideshows happening in Cirque du Brainstormsession.

Second, the problem of “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of looking moronic in front of colleaugues — is mitigated online. After all, with online brainstorms, you have ample time to self-scrutinize and research your argument before expressing it, which builds confidence in the value of the contribution. When allowed sufficient time to develop the idea, you are much more likely to share it, and it is likely to be a better developed idea. Not so with the spontaneous blurting required in face-to-face brainstorming.

Third, the problem of “production blocking” – where thoughts are lost as you’re waiting for others to express their ideas — is nearly eliminated during online brainstorms. With online brainstorms, thoughts can be written down, and fully developed, as you have them.

In short, online brainstorms allow for uninterrupted contemplation, while still taking advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” phenomena.

In the book Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki sings the praises of the decisions crowds jointly make. But Surowiecki also stresses that crowds are capable of making very bad decisions. He says that a primary factor that leads to poor crowd decision making is when members of the crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that they start to emulate each other and conform, rather than thinking as individuals.

Face-to-face meetings are much more apt to generate this kind of blind following of vocal group leaders than large groups of people sitting at their keyboards thinking independently.

Granted, online brainstorms are far from perfect. For instance, the problem of social loafing – sitting back and letting others do the work – arguably could be aggravated with large online groups. And tragically, there is no junk food supplied at e-brainstorms. But online brainstorms do avoid many of the problems associated with face-to-face brainstorms, and research indicates that they produce better results.

– Loveland

Brainstorm or Braindrain?

All wet?
Those of you in the PR, advertising and marketing business are probably very familiar with the brainstorm model of idea generation, but I know it is also used in many other industries.

For those of you who have been left out of the brain rain, here is a crash course: During brainstorms, a group of colleagues closes themselves into a room and spontaneously blurts out ideas on the given topic. The ideas are excitedly written on giant Post-it notes adhered to the walls by a perky brain storm facilitator.

“There is no such thing as a bad idea,” the facilitator, pacing around the room frenetically, continually reminds us, usually after someone offers a particularly bad idea. “The wilder the idea, the better!”

The group is urged to generate a large quantity of ideas, and rapidly build off ideas with supplements or variations. Toys and treats are often offered, to foster creativity. A few people usually sit quietly looking at their watches, and looking idealess, while a relative few dominate the airwaves. The session ends with the chirpy facilitator congratulating the participants, pointing to all of the giant Post-it Notes on the walls as evidence of the world changing ideas that the brainstorm precipitated.

Brainstorming, which was particularly promoted by legendary BBDO ad man Alex Osborn, is the operational and cultural building block of many creatively oriented businesses. The brainstorm session is to PR and agencies as the assembly line is to a manufacturer. It’s the place where the company’s talent synergistically comes together to create MAGIC.

Or does it?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Intoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain examines the heavy workplace emphasis on consensus and teamwork generally, and the brainstorming work model specifically. Cain cites research done by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette in 1963. Dunnette asked ad executives and 3M executives to do a set of tasks. Some worked alone, and some in groups. Cain writes:

The results were unambiguous. The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases…

‘The “evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

…Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehehsion: meaning the fear of looking studid in front of one’s peers.”

So, why is brainstorming still such a big part of business operations?

Because we’re all afraid to protest, for fear we will look like killjoys who can’t appreciate all the giddy merriment and free Snickers bars?

Because all of those Post-it notes on the wall feel more like tangible evidence of productivity than the evidence offered by peer reviewed scientific research?

Because the extraverted leaders that tend to lead organizations personally are attracted to the energy such sessions gives them?

Quick, someone get some giant Post-it Notes, colored markers, beanbag chairs and Cheetos. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time!

– Loveland