Brainstorming usually sinks your ship

If you work in teams, chances are you use brainstorming, gathering face-to-face in groups so that everyone can share ideas. This technique has been around since the late 1930s and many in quality and excellence pursuits view it as an effective technique.

Unfortunately, the science I’ve read is not quite in agreement. A group of four people typically generates approximately half as many ideas as a nominal group of four does. Production blocking, and a few other problems, lead to some key deficiencies in brainstorming:

  •  When group members are waiting for turn-taking, there are high chances that they may forget the ideas that they had in mind, they may focus on remembering those ideas rather than listening, or they may decide their ideas are no longer relevant.
  • The competing demand for coming up with one’s own idea and listening to other’s ideas makes it difficult to build on the ideas of others.
  • As the size of the group increases, the participants might feel less identifiable or accountable which might lead to decreased social loafing or level of motivation.

Overcoming production blocking requires the use of additional tools, such as brainwriting. Brainwriting encompasses the sharing of ideas through pieces of paper – usually having people write their ideas out on post-it notes for example. This technique makes brainstorming effective by overcoming the problem of verbal brainstorming. Though their seems to be some worry here about social cues kicking in, and there may be more benefit in having folks write all their ideas on one piece of paper, or better yet on their own before the meeting.

Brain writing, to be truly effective, requires solid collaborative evaluation process to follow the idea generation phase this is the foundation of decision quality. The research seems to indicate we see results better than the norm with this combination.

This appears to be an area where more research is needed to examine different variations , the boundary conditions for demonstrating the superiority of brainwriting over nominal groups, the optimum size of the group, and the potential of mixing verbal and nonverbal brainstorming. If anyone knows of good studies in this area, please point me to them.

References

  • Coskun, H. (2005). Cognitive stimulation with convergent and divergent thinking exercises in brainwriting: Incubation, sequence priming, and group context. Small Group Research, 36, 466-498. doi:10.1177/1046496405276475
  • Cragan, J. F., Wright, D. W., & Kasch, C. R. (2009). Communication in small groups : theory, process, skills. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning – Academic and Professional Group.
  • West, M. A. (2012). Effective teamwork : practical lessons from organizational research. Wiley-Blackwell.

VUCA – Accented Just Right It is a Profanity

Talk about strategy, risk management or change and it is inevitable that the acronym VUCA — short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—will come up. VUCA is basically a catchall for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!” And like many catch-all’s it is misleading, VUCA conflates four distinct types of challenges that demand four distinct types of responses. VUCA can quickly become a crutch, a way to throw off the hard work of strategy and planning—after all, you can’t prepare for a VUCA world, right?

The mistake folks often make here is treating these four traits as a single idea, which leads to poorer decision making.

VUCA really isn’t a tool. It’s a checklist of four things that hopefully your system is paying attention to. All four represent distinct elements that make our environment and organization harder to grasp and control. 

Bias

There are many forms of bias that we must be cognizant during problem solving and decision making.

That chart can be a little daunting. I’m just going to mention three of the more common biases.

  • Attribution bias: When we do something well, we tend to think it’s because of our own merit. When we do something poorly, we tend to believe it was due to external factors (e.g. other people’s actions). When it comes to other people, we tend to think the opposite – if they did something well, we consider them lucky, and if they did something poorly, we tend to think it’s due to their personality or lack of skills.
  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to seek out evidence that supports decisions and positions we’ve already embraced – regardless of whether the information is true – and putting less weight on facts that contradict them.
  • Hindsight bias: The tendency to believe an event was predictable or preventable when looking at the sequence of events in hindsight. This can result in oversimplification of cause and effect and an exaggerated view that a person involved with an event could’ve prevented it. They didn’t know the outcome like you do now and likely couldn’t have predicted it with the information available at the time.

A few ways to address our biases include:

  • Bouncing ideas off of others, especially those not involved in the discussion or decision.
  • Surround yourself with a diverse group of people and do not be afraid to consider dissenting views. Actively listen.
  • Imagine yourself in other’s shoes.
  • Be mindful of your internal environment. If you’re struggling with a decision, take a moment to breathe. Don’t make decisions tired, hungry or stressed.
  • Consider who is impacted by your decision (or lack of decision). Sometimes, looking at how others will be impacted by a given decision will help to clarify the decision for you.

The advantage of focusing on decision quality is that we have a process that allows us to ensure we are doing the right things consistently. By building mindfulness we can strive for good decisions, reducing subjectivity and effective problem-solving.

Yes…but…and

We have all had the first rule of brainstorming, “defer judgment,” drilled into us for years. The general rule of “When a person proposes an idea, don’t say, ‘Yes, but…’ to point out flaws in the idea; instead, say, ‘Yes, and…’” which is intended to get people to add to the original idea, has become almost a norm in business settings. We have all become improv actors.

That truism is probably not a good one though. It can lend to a fairly superficial approach. Yes we need to be beyond “Yes, but”, but “Yes, and” stifles creativity. The concept of “Yes, and” gives an illusion of moving forward, avoiding conflict, but also prevents truly diving in and exploring issues.

We need to combine the best aspects of criticism and ideation, “Yes…but…and.” I propose idea A, a colleague first addresses what she perceives to be a flaw in it, provides constructive feedback (this is the “but”), and then suggests a possible way to overcome or avoid the flaw, yielding Idea B (this is the “and”). Then you do the same: You acknowledge Idea B, provide a constructive critique, and develop a new, even more improved result. Others can jump in with their critiques and proposals during the process. This kind of constructive interaction encourages a deep cycle of critical dialogues that can lead to a coherent, breakthrough idea.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • When you see a weakness in the idea, don’t simply say, “This does not work.” Rather, first explain the problem and then propose an improvement that would make it work.
  • When you do not understand the idea, don’t simply say, “That’s unclear to me.” Instead, first point to the specific spot that is unclear and then propose possible alternative interpretations: “Do you mean X or Y?” This helps all participants to see more detailed options
  • When you like the idea, do not just take it as it is. Instead, search for possible improvements and then push forward to make it even better.
  • When you listen to someone’s critique of your idea,try to learn from it. Listen carefully to the critique, be curious, and wonder, “Why is my colleague suggesting this contrasting view that is not in line with what I see? Perhaps there is an even more powerful idea hidden behind our two perspectives.” The critique becomes a positive force, focusing the team on overcoming its weaknesses and enhancing the original idea.

Good decisions require creativity. But flexing our practices we can drive that in our interactions.