Not-so- bright ideas

Departments - Viewpoint

Your brainstorming sessions may actually be smothering the good ideas.

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May 6, 2016

Brainstorming – it’s a word that causes different reactions throughout a given group.

Manager: *Wrings hands nervously … “We need a fresh new marketing campaign. It’s time for a brainstorming session.”

Handful of employees: *Rolls eyes and sighs heavily … “Great, another useless meeting where no one listens to me.”

That guy/gal in the office who dominates every meeting: *Pumps fist in the air … “Yes! Oh, I’m going to rock this meeting!”

Brainstorming in theory seems helpful. You gather your team into a room and everyone blurts out ideas with the goal of finding one really good idea. Think back to your company’s brainstorming sessions. Did you actually get any benefit from it? You may recall a solid idea that the team agreed to implement, but there’s a good chance it was not, because your team’s exceptional ideas likely weren’t even shared.

Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management, says brainstorming is quite ineffective. In reality, there’s typically one or two team members who dominate every meeting.

“We all know this person. This is the person who comes to the meeting and decides that their voice is the most important one,” Thompson explains. “So they take up the group’s most valuable resource, which is time.”

That leads to what Thompson calls “the doom loop.” The people who aren’t as dominant don’t speak because they’ve given up, and then the overly dominant people take over and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, she says. In her research, she found that in a typical six-person group, two people do more than 60 percent of the talking. That’s not conducive to a brainstorm session, eh? As the group gets bigger, this effect gets more magnified, she says. This, of course, is frustrating for the rest of the people who come to the meeting ready to make a contribution, but there’s no way to get an angle or get the floor.

To hear everyone’s voice in a meeting or brainstorming session, Thompson suggests a technique called brainwriting, a phrase coined by Paul Paulus, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. Brainwriting is the simultaneous generation of written ideas. Each team member writes ideas on a piece of paper or index card, and this practice is done in silence for a pre-determined amount of time. When your team is writing out ideas, no one can interrupt them or block their thoughts, Thompson explains.

Once everyone is finished writing, the ideas are presented so that no one can identify which idea belongs to which person. The plan is to have a meritocracy of ideas, she says. When all of the ideas are reviewed, the team votes on the ones with the most merit. This way the overly dominant people are neutralized and the normally quiet people are energized, she explains. Try it at your next meeting and let me know how it goes.

Correction from the April issue’s “Color is king” feature: More than 23 million Endless Summer hydrangeas have been sold since 2004. Also in that feature, Rich Hesselein’s Calycanthus floridus was eventually named ‘Burgundy Spice’ in the trade.

krodda@gie.net